US Congress back for ‘lame duck’ session

Monday, November 15, 2010

WASHINGTON - US lawmakers were returning to work Monday with a laundry list of key domestic spending bills needed to keep the government running and avoid a major tax hike for households by year’s end.

The so-called “lame-duck” session will convene until the end of this year and marks the last chance for President Barack Obama to take advantage of his Democratic Party’s majorities in both chambers.

Republicans took over the House of Representatives in a landslide congressional election Nov 2, in a severe blow to Obama’s domestic agenda, but the new conservative lawmakers only take office in January.

The lame-duck Congress will be tasked with approving the budgets of federal agencies or face a government shutdown at the end of this year. Republicans are holding out for cuts in their funding.

A controversial set of tax cuts approved under former president George W. Bush are also set to expire at year’s end if they are not extended. Obama wants them extended only for lower and middle-income earners, Republicans have pushed for all to be made permanent.

Another priority: Obama has committed to getting the Senate to ratify a new START Treaty on nuclear arms reduction with Russia.

The two parties face tough negotiations before there can be any agreement on budget issues. Republicans were swept into office by campaigning heavily on spending cuts and smaller government.

Obama will hold a meeting Thursday with top Democrats and Republicans in Congress to find areas of compromise. The parties were sharply divided during Obama’s first two years on everything from taxes and government spending to health care and financial reform.

The still-sluggish US economy, which was another key reason for Democratic losses Nov 2, is also likely to dominate much of the lame-duck session, which could run until the end of December.

Left-leaning interest groups have pushed Obama to take advantage of the session by ramming through some of their top priorities, including putting an end to the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that bans gays from serving openly in the military.

Republicans by contrast are warning that Democrats should heed the lessons of the mid-term election that Obama’s party had overreached during its time in control of Congress.

Many of the new lawmakers set to join Congress were also to receive orientations this week. The arrival of a divided legislature in January, with Republicans controlling the House and Democrats retaining a slim majority in the Senate, has many predicting gridlock during the second half of Obama’s term.

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