The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Congress reconvenes to complete its least productive session ever

From left, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) hold hands as they sing, "We Shall Overcome" on June 24 in the Capitol Rotunda. (AP/Susan Walsh)

Congress reconvenes on Wednesday for the first time since Election Day, but Americans expecting a sudden outbreak of ambition and bipartisanship will need to wait at least a little bit longer.

The next several weeks will be used by House and Senate leaders to complete several pieces of unfinished business and conclude the least productive congressional session in U.S. history. Top leaders plan to use the lame-duck session to avoid another government shutdown for the remainder of the fiscal year, clear a backlog of presidential nominations to the federal bench and several agencies and try to identify legislation that could pass with bipartisan support next year and help calm an electorate eager for signs of cooperation and productivity on Capitol Hill.

"I think everyone’s anxious to see the mood over the next couple of weeks," said Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Fla.), who won reelection to a second term last week. "Maybe this is a young congressman being naïve -- that leaders on both sides of the aisle will come to the middle ground -- but maybe we can find three to four issues to agree upon, and maybe agree to disagree on some other ones."

Much of the tone and pace in the coming weeks will be set by Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), the vanquished Senate leader who will cede control of the upper chamber next year. He is expected to be easily reelected as Democratic leader on Thursday and then quickly determine how much time to devote to paring down a list of hundreds of Obama administration nominees awaiting Senate confirmation. Among the most sensitive decisions: Whether to formally begin the confirmation process for Loretta Lynch, President Obama's pick to serve as his next attorney general.

Republicans, led by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), have expressed a desire to confirm her once the Senate is in GOP control. But Democrats nervous that Republicans could derail Lynch's nomination next year may press ahead before adjournment.

Beyond nominations, House and Senate negotiators have been working for weeks on a comprehensive bill to fund federal agencies through next September, and aides said they hope to bring the measure to a vote before the Dec. 11 deadline. While some conservatives are calling for a temporary measure that would allow Republicans to revisit funding levels next Spring, top GOP leaders are eager to get the issue out of the way so they can use next year to craft a full fiscal 2016 budget.

Lawmakers are also under pressure to revive a variety of tax breaks that expired at the end of last year, including popular business perks such as the credit for research-and-development expenses. The House has voted to revive the research credit and make it a permanent part of the tax code, while the Senate has advanced a bill to revive all the tax breaks and extend them through 2015.

And word came late Tuesday that Senate Democrats may soon hold a vote to authorize construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, a move designed to help embattled Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) in her bid to defeat Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) in a Dec. 6 runoff in a state where energy industry concerns have the potential to move votes. Just because Democrats plan to hold a vote doesn't guarantee that the plan will succeed, however. When Reid attempted to hold a vote earlier this year to authorize constructing the pipeline, Republicans blocked it as they sought votes on unrelated matters.

Another issue hanging over Congress in the coming days will be immigration. Neither chamber is expected to hold votes on the issue, but both sides are eagerly watching to see whether Obama makes good on his vow to use his executive powers to revamp the nation's immigration policy.

Obama firmly rejected calls from top congressional Republicans last week that he delay his promised executive action on immigration, dismissing calls that he allow Congress to debate the issue next year. He is said to be reviewing several proposals to allow as many as 5 million illegal immigrants to stay in the United States at least temporarily, according to several people familiar with his plans. An announcement of his decision is expected once he returns from a visit to China, Burma and Australia, either this month or in early December.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), a vocal proponent of reforms, urged Obama to hold off because the immigration debate "has to be bipartisan," he said in an interview. "It should be and has to be so that we can finally have an immigration system that works. If the president ignores the fact that there’s going to be a new Congress in January, that makes it frankly almost impossible to get anything done."

As with all lame-duck periods, the abbreviated session will bring Congress's newest members -- eager with anticipation -- to Capitol Hill at a time when dozens of members are preparing to leave, either by choice or as a result of electoral losses. Orientation sessions for new members of Congress begin on Wednesday and continue Thursday and Friday, before picking up again next week. The hotly anticipated lottery for new House members to select Capitol Hill office space is scheduled for next Wednesday.

Those sticking around will be eagerly seeking ways to work on legislation that could pass with bipartisan support next year.

"You need to have some small victories – or victories – to build trust," said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), a two-term lawmaker who will be serving in the majority for the first time next year.

Corker said in an interview that he's eager for the GOP to control the budget process, but also hopes that his party can find ways to work with Democrats to make changes to recent financial regulatory reforms and to quickly authorize construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.

"It’s not the biggest thing ever to be dealt with -- it’s just the destructive way it’s been dealt with has become symbolic," he said of the pipeline project.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), who cited Corker as one of her closest GOP colleagues, also cited the Keystone project as an easy issue to resolve next year.

"I just think that there’s tons of things that the American public expects us to do and not all of them are big, big things. But I think we should get to work doing them," she said in an interview.