Lame duck on Congressional pre-Thanksgiving menu

WASHINGTON–Congress will return to Washington this week with post-election tensions still running high and a plate full of unappetizing legislative leftovers.

Like any holiday get-together, there will papered-over internal feuds, most notably leadership elections to approve a just-brokered deal allowing all the top House Democrats, including Rep. John Larson, to keep their coveted posts. And there will be wistful moments, such as retiring Sen. Christopher Dodd winding down his 36-year career in Congress.

Meanwhile, Dodd’s successor, Democratic Sen.-elect Richard Blumenthal, will be learning his way around the Capitol, along with other incoming freshmen.

Blumenthal won’t get to cast any official votes, but he’ll be in town for a series of freshmen “orientation” sessions that focus on the chamber’s arcane rules and ethics requirements, among other events. He’ll be assigned a small, windowless transition office in the basement of the Senate Dirksen Building until leaders dole out nicer official digs early next year.

Blumenthal will also probably get an earful of advice from the all-Democratic Connecticut delegation, most of whom are still in the doldrums about their party’s devastating election losses on Nov. 2.

“I’m sure there’s going to be some down-hearted members,” said Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, who added that he’s dreading the good-byes to several close friends who lost their re-election bids. “That’s going to be a backdrop that’s going to color the mood.”

Sour mood or not, though, Courtney and others expect a fruitful final push before lawmakers close the books on the 111th Congress.

Perhaps the most divisive outstanding question is whether lawmakers will renew all of the Bush-era tax cuts, which are set to expire on Dec. 31. The issue has divided Democrats like 3rd District Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who says breaks for the wealthy should not be renewed as Congress seeks to tighten the federal budget, and 4th District Rep. Jim Himes, who says lawmakers should not raise taxes on anyone in this still-weak economy.

With their recent election gains, Republicans hold the advantage in their push to renew all the tax cuts, for a year or two if not permanently. It remains to be seen how the White House, which has sent mixed signals on the issue, navigates this political minefield.

Himes said he hopes a resolution to this lengthy debate will prepare Congress for a broader discussion about ways to solve the nation’s fiscal problems, including the recommendations outlined by the co-chairs of National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.

“I always bristle at addressing the tax code piece by piece and hopefully the work of the commission will allow us to address it holistically,” he said. The commission, established by President Obama to examine ways to balance the federal budget, is scheduled to issue its final report on Dec. 1.

But others said Congress may not be able to come to an agreement on the tax cuts, let alone broader fiscal issues.

“Logic suggests this is the time to cut a deal… but in this political environment, logic may not apply,” said Norman Ornstein, a congressional expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

Waiting until January to address the tax cuts would subject almost all Americans to a huge increase and could damage a fragile economy, Ornstein noted. But a recent statement from a top White House aide expressing a willingness to compromise was met with fierce blowback from liberals, a sign of how hard it will be to find middle ground on this signature issue.

“You can’t have people screaming about the deficit and taking $700 billion off the table,” said Dodd, in explaining why he would not vote for an extension of the upper income breaks.

Congress must also pass a funding bill to keep the government running. Lawmakers can either opt for a stop-gap measure that would keep agencies funded at relatively flat levels or they can craft an omnibus budget bill that would provide some increases for key programs.

The choice has concrete implications for Connecticut. Courtney notes, for example, that a stop-gap bill would extend the current shipbuilding budget, which only provides funding for one Virginia-class submarine per year, instead of two, as he and others successfully pushed for in the now-stalled defense spending bill for fiscal year 2011.

“You really are potentially delaying the two-sub-a-year schedule” if Congress doesn’t pass an omnibus budget bill, he said.

But with both parties eager to demonstrate fiscal austerity in the wake of the elections, it’s unclear how much of a boost any programs will get.

The tax cuts and spending measures are the only two items that Congress must address before adjourning. But there are many other almost-finished bills they could dispense with quickly, if partisan rancor isn’t an obstacle.

For example, there’s a broad overhaul of child nutrition, which would provide more funding to schools for healthier lunches. There’s a food-safety bill that would strengthen the Food and Drug Administration’s ability to recall tainted food and inspect production plants.

And there’s the Department of Defense Authorization bill, which includes the contentious provision to repeal the Pentagon’s ban preventing homosexuals from serving openly in the military. Senate Republicans blocked consideration of that bill in October, but Democrats have vowed to try again.

“I’m expecting they will stick around to try and accomplish a long wish list, but there’s going to be tremendous pressure from Fox News and conservatives to say this is all illegitimate” because of the election results, Ornstein said. His prediction for the session? “A lot of unpredictability.”

There are also some new items on Democrats’ to-do list before they turn over power to the Republicans come January.

For example, Democrats promised to push legislation giving seniors a one-time check for $250 to compensate for the lack of any cost-of-living increase in Social Security payments this year. And with unemployment benefits set to run out again on Nov. 30, advocates are pushing for another extension.

“These are lifelines for people, so I’m hopeful there’s a spirit of cooperation” to address them, said DeLauro.

Even before lawmakers delve into those policy battles, they have to clear some post-election dust. That involves, on both sides of the aisle, holding leadership elections to determine who will be at the helm of the House and Senate in the next Congress.

In the House, Nancy Pelosi is seeking to hold on to the top job, which will be minority leader when the GOP takes power. That has created unease among some Democrats who would rather see a new face at the helm of their party, but Pelosi so far seems to have kept discontent to a minimum.

And late Friday, Pelosi negotiated a deal that will avoid an internal party fight over the No. 2 slot, minority whip, and will also likely allow Larson, who represents Connecticut’s 1st congressional district, to hold onto his post as the chairman of the Democratic Caucus.

“He doesn’t have an opponent but we’re campaigning like we do,” said Christopher Barnes, an aide to Larson. “I think what’s clear during this process is people are very happy with the job he’s done.”

The House leadership elections are set for Wednesday.

Across the Capitol, Dodd won’t get to cast a vote in his caucus to keep Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in his post. And even as he’s ramping up for a last round of political and policy fights, Dodd will also be helping his staff find new jobs-and looking for one himself.

“It’s very bittersweet,” Dodd said of the next few weeks. “On the one hand, I’m excited about a new chapter in my life. But I’m going to miss my colleagues, miss the work.”

He said he’s been going through files and boxes, as he and his staff prepare to shut down his office. At the same time, he’s make a final full-tilt push on a few last legislative items, including hearings on the foreclosure crisis and push for gender paycheck equity legislation.

“I’m trying to close up the place,” he joked.