What’s at stake for the lame ducks in Congress

On Capitol Hill, this is the beginning of a strange season. Congress has returned to work for a “lame duck” session, held in the shadow of last month’s Republican rout in the midterm elections. For the next month, Capitol Hill will be divided between a party that has power but no mandate — and another that has a mandate but no power. Which will be awkward. But this ill-matched Congress can’t simply go home. In December, legislators will tackle a number of problems they couldn’t agree on before the elections.

What’s at stake? Only large tax cuts. And nuclear weapons. And childhood nutrition, unemployment benefits and “don’t ask, don’t tell.” And, perhaps, the government itself. If Congress can’t agree on a funding bill, the federal government could run out of money and shut down. These will be December’s battles:

1. Tax cuts

The most pressing issue in the lame-duck Congress sounds, at first glance, like a typo.

The federal government spends more money than it takes in. The two parties both agree that this is bad. Here’s what they can’t agree on: How much less should the government take in, in the years to come?

The debate is about income tax cuts, passed under President George W. Bush, which are due to expire Dec. 31. If that happens, a single person earning $46,000 a year might see his or her taxes jump $400, according to the nonprofit Tax Policy Center. A married couple earning a total of $440,000, on the other hand, might see an increase of $20,000.

Most Democrats want to extend tax cuts covering up to the first $250,000 that a family earns in a year. Republican leaders want to keep all the tax cuts, including those on income above $250,000. In a recession, they say, it doesn’t make sense to cut anyone’s taxes.

Congress and the president could agree to a temporary truce, extending all the tax cuts for a few years only. Or, as some Democrats have suggested recently, they could agree to keep tax cuts on incomes less than $1 million.

2. The New START treaty

The point of this U.S.-Russia treaty, signed but not yet ratified, is to continue the slow nuclear stand-down that has followed the Cold War. The two nations would agree to cut deployed long-range nuclear weapons by up to 30 percent and to allow each other to inspect the remaining stockpiles.

The prevention of nuclear armageddon still enjoys wide support on Capitol Hill.

But this treaty does not.

New START must be ratified by two-thirds of the Senate. That was no problem for two past treaties: the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, signed in 1992 by President George H.W. Bush, and the “Moscow Treaty,” signed in 2003 by President George W. Bush.

But now, Sen. John Kyl (Ariz.), the chamber’s second-ranking Republican, has held up the treaty’s passage. Kyl has said he wants more guarantees that the government will properly maintain the nuclear weapons that remain. He also thinks that the lame-duck session is too short a time to consider the issue.

The White House is now trying to work around Kyl to win over nine other Republican. If it can’t, there will be more Republicans — and perhaps more support for denying Obama a foreign policy win — in January.

3. “Don’t ask, don’t tell”

This 17-year-old rule, which bars gay men and lesbians from serving openly in the military, has been under attack all year. This fall, a federal judge ruled the ban unconstitutional and ordered it scrapped. A higher court reinstated the ban while it considers the matter on appeal.

And on Tuesday, a Pentagon report concluded that ending the ban would pose a low risk to military readiness. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said that the repeal of the rule “should be done.”

But “don’t ask, don’t tell” isn’t dead yet and could outlive the lame-duck session.

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) could bring it up for a vote on the floor this month. But the ascendant GOP is in no mood to cooperate. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) says he’s still worried about the effect on morale, and other Republican leaders say the whole issue is a distraction from their top priority — job creation.

4. The “Continuing resolution”

A continuing resolution (known in Hill jargon as a “CR”) is a bill that’s introduced when Congress can’t agree on a full budget for the federal government.

Instead, it passes a bill to temporarily “continue” funding federal agencies at their present rates.

Congress must pass a new continuing resolution before Friday. If it doesn’t, the government will shut down — as it did in 1995 during a budget showdown between President Bill Clinton and congressional Republicans.

The sticking point is Republican demands to shrink federal spending back to 2008 levels. But a shutdown still seems unlikely; while a lot of voters want smaller government, very few seem to want no government.

Signs from the Hill indicate legislators will beat Friday’s deadline and pass a resolution good for another few weeks, at least.

5. Unemployment benefits

Another looming deadline. On Tuesday, emergency unemployment insurance — he federal checks given to the jobless — expired. If nothing is done to extend the benefits, advocates say as many as 3 million people will see their checks cut off by the end of January.

Some Republicans have voiced concerns about the high cost of these benefits. In the middle of last month, the House failed to approve a plan to extend them, with all but 11 Democrats voting for it and all but 21 Republicans voting against it.

6. Childhood nutrition

On Wednesday, House Democratic leaders plan to call a vote that could be a measure of the muscle they’ve got left. At issue: a bill that would feed schoolchildren better food.

If they can’t win on that, it could be a long month.

The bill is intended to give more poor children access to subsidized meals at school. It also would improve the quality of those meals and give more federal money to school districts that comply with higher nutrition standards.

“Kids that have food insecurity learn at a slower rate than their peers,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters Tuesday. “Food insecurity” is Washington-speak for “hunger.”

The bill passed the Senate unanimously. But it will face some Republican opposition in the House from members who say it will impose more costs on struggling school systems.

7. The DREAM Act

This bill is aimed at illegal immigrants who came to this country as children. If they go to college or join the military as adults, it would give them a chance to obtain legal residency.

As attitudes toward illegal immigrants have hardened, support for the bill has collapsed among Republicans and many Democrats. To them, it looks like a kind of amnesty for lawbreakers.

On Tuesday, Reid could promise only a “test vote” on the issue: he would bring the issue to the Senate floor, and take his chances. The implicit message was that Reid might lose — but lose in a way that showed Hispanic voters he was trying.

GRAPHIC: David A. Fahrenthold, Kenneth W. Smith Jr., Nick Anderson and Shankar Vedantam / The Washington Post - 12/1/2010.