The lame-duck 97th Congress, jarred by mixed reviews from voters, limps back on stage today for a legislative curtain call that is not exactly what President Reagan had in mind when he forced the post-election session on reluctant congressional leaders two months ago.
Many of the issues -- including taxes, spending, deficits and defense -- are the same as they were before Congress left town in early October.
But the Nov. 2 elections shook Reagan's grip on Congress, and the main thrust of his economic program of spending and tax cuts has been blunted by its failure to produce recovery.
The session is expected to last no more than three weeks, and 84 of its members, roughly one out of six, will not return in January because of defeat, redistricting or voluntary retirement.
So no great legislative breakthroughs are anticipated, aside from a program supported by both Democrats and Republicans to rebuild highways, bridges and transit systems financed by an increase in the federal gasoline tax.
But the session, even without infusion of new blood from the elections, could be signficant in indicating whether, as many members have suggested, priorities are shifting toward stimulating the economy and away from squeezing social welfare programs.
When Reagan demanded the session as a way of reminding voters of Congress' tardiness in completing its budget work, he talked about wrapping up overdue appropriations bills and polishing off a few of his pet projects, such as a constitutional amendment to require balanced budgets.
But the strong Democratic showing in the elections, coupled with jolt after jolt of bad economic news, has so dramatically refocused Congress' attention that its most likely lame-duck accomplishment may be the nickel-a-gallon gasoline tax increase to finance as much as $5.5 billion a year in job-creating highway, bridge and transit work.
Moreover, the elections churned up anxiety about Reagan's costly defense buildup effort, and that will lead to a renewed assault on military spending increases, especially start-up production funds for the MX missile and the controversial "Dense Pack" deployment system sought for it by the administration.
The outcome of the defense fight is unclear, but congressional leaders anticipate passage of the highway-jobs plan and have expressed doubt whether there will be much zeal for continued domestic spending cuts.
In this context, there is serious doubt among them as to how many of the past-due appropriations bills, including Reagan's high-priority defense spending bill, can be approved and sent to the White House before the 97th Congress finally quits shortly before Christmas.
If the defense money bill becomes mired in a fight about MX and other big-ticket weapons items, it may simply be wrapped up, along with some big domestic appropriations measures, into another omnibus "continuing resolution" to fund the government until sometime early next year.
Reagan aides have signaled displeasure with spending levels proposed for some of the individual domestic appropriations bills, raising the possibility of vetoes and perhaps a confrontation over the continuing resolution if its priorities are out of kilter with those of the White House.
Such a standoff forced a one-day government shutdown at this time last year until Reagan and Congress finally worked out a compromise.
Ten of the 13 regular appropriations bills due by Oct. 1 remain to be passed, including most of the big ones.
House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) has promised House action on all of the 10 bills other than the ever-controversial foreign aid appropriations measure. But Senate Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) has said there is "no way" the Senate can finish all of the bills forwarded by the House. Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Mark O. Hatfield (R-Ore.) has said Congress may be able to complete no more than three or four of the bills, probably not including defense.
Although Congress has a huge stockpile of unfinished legislation, including updating of major environmental legislation, it is not expected to complete action on much other than appropriations, the gas tax-jobs package and perhaps one or two other measures.
Among measures targeted by congressional leaders for action are tax and trade liberalization features of Reagan's economic aid program for the Caribbean Basin and legislation to provide a system for disposal of nuclear wastes.
The Caribbean program is in committee, while a nuclear waste bill has passed the Senate and was pending before the House when Congress recessed.
Baker wants the Senate to act on his bill to allow televising of Senate sessions.
The House is expected to take up legislation that would protect U.S. auto-making jobs by requiring specified levels of domestic content in cars sold in this country, but Baker has indicated the Senate will not act on it.
The House also may take up Senate-passed legislation revising the nation's immigration laws, although final action remains in doubt.
Revision of air-pollution laws, reauthorization of housing programs, coal slurry pipeline legislation and a package of regulatory reforms also are on the "maybe" list, according to congressional leaders.
In addition to the highway-jobs bill, House Democrats are drafting a second jobs measure, although Baker has indicated the Senate will not take it up even if the House does. Many Democrats also are talking about an extension of existing unemployment benefits, which some Republicans say may be too tempting to resist.
Reagan is pushing for enactment of so-called urban enterprise zones to create tax and other incentives for investment in deteriorating neighborhoods, and he has been toying with the idea of accelerating the last installment of his three-year income tax cut. But neither was on the agenda jointly formulated last week by Baker and O'Neill, and congressional Republican leaders have said Congress will not advance the tax cut.
Other than the highway-jobs bill, "the lame-duck session is going to be limited to trying to pass what appropriations measures we can and a continuing resolution," Baker said yesterday on "Face the Nation" (CBS, WDVM) program.
"I doubt that the big issues are debated fully in the three weeks of the lame duck. I certainly doubt that they're settled before January," he said. Issues that will not be resolved until next year include further job-creating efforts and the MX missile, Baker said.