IT'S NOT CLEAR how long lawmakers will be in town for the lame-duck session that begins today, nor how much appetite they'll have for tackling tough issues. What is clear is that in the political maneuvering leading up to the election, Congress failed miserably at its most basic responsibility: funding the operations of the federal government. Only two of the 13 annual spending bills have made it to the president's desk; the remaining agencies and the District are stuck at last year's spending levels. This is a particular problem for the District, whose budget, though approved by committees in both the House and Senate, remains frozen. The District's operations ought not be held hostage to the broader budget fights on the Hill.

Other spending measures need to be enacted as well before members go home for the year. The president is right when he says it's time for Congress to create a Homeland Security Department, but other important security initiatives, from basic bio- terror research to hiring more FBI agents, are also stacked up in the appropriations measures. Simply passing another continuing resolution until the new Congress convenes next year would delay those efforts and squeeze many others as well. House Appropriations Committee Chairman C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.) warned in October that everything from the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program to student loans to veterans' medical care would suffer if spending were held for months at current rates. President Bush has contributed to the appropriations impasse by drawing an excessively hard line on domestic spending; he needs to join now with congressional leaders in seeking a compromise.

A few other matters also deserve attention before this session comes to a close. The extended unemployment insurance passed earlier this year will run out Dec. 31, but the percentage of the jobless who have been out of work for more than six months continues to grow. Lawmakers should provide additional help for those who have exhausted their benefits, as Congress did repeatedly during the last recession, and make sure the extended program doesn't expire before the next Congress convenes. Mr. Bush and Republican leaders are already talking about offering an economic stimulus package in the new year, but they could take an important step now by approving long-delayed fiscal relief for state governments. Many governors and legislators will be gathering in state capitols in January to wrestle with budget shortfalls. Federal assistance wouldn't avert all the cutbacks they're facing, but it would help, and all the more if the help is timely.