WASHINGTON — Seven weeks ahead of the GOP House takeover, hobbled Democrats and invigorated Republicans return Monday to a testy tax dispute and a lengthy to-do list for a postelection session of Congress unlikely to achieve any landmark legislation.
With change clearly in the air, more than 100 mainly Republican freshmen arrive on Capitol Hill to be schooled on the jobs they'll assume when the next Congress convenes in January. For Democrats, it's another sad note as one of their most venerable members goes on trial on ethics charges.
Lame-duck sessions are usually unpopular and unproductive. Nothing suggests otherwise this year.
Republicans are looking ahead to January, when they will take back control of the House; many Democratic lawmakers and staff are more focused on cleaning out their desks and looking for new jobs. That doesn't mean they can slack off.
Congress must act before year's end on expiring Bush-era tax cuts to protect millions of people from significant tax increases. Lawmakers failed to pass even a single annual spending bill this year, and funds are needed to keep federal agencies financed and avoid a government shutdown. Doctors, meanwhile, face a crippling cut in Medicare reimbursements.
Democrats still command sizable majorities in the House and Senate, and have other ambitions for the lame-duck session. Most will go unfulfilled.
There are efforts to give Social Security recipients a $250 check to make up for no cost-of-living increase next year; to extend unemployment benefits; to allow gays to serve openly in the military; to ratify a nuclear weapons reduction treaty with Russia; and to extend government oversight of food safety.
Congress will be in session for a week, break for Thanksgiving week and return on Nov. 29. Lawmakers will continue until they complete their work or give up.
Most of the attention this week will be on activities off the House and Senate floors.
In a back room of a House office building, the House ethics committee will open the trial Monday of 80-year-old Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., the former Ways and Means Committee chairman charged with multiple ethics violations.
Elsewhere on the Hill, more than 100 incoming House and Senate freshmen start learning the rules of decorum, how to run a congressional office and how not to get lost in the Capitol basement. Two Democratic senators — Joe Manchin, who won the seat of the late Robert Byrd of West Virginia, and Chris Coons, elected to Vice President Joe Biden's Delaware seat — will be sworn in Monday.
On Tuesday the Senate parties elect their leaders. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada will continue to head the reduced Democratic majority, with Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky still guiding the Republicans.
One uncertainty is whether Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., can get fellow Republicans to accept a freeze on the pet spending priorities of lawmakers known as earmarks for the coming session.
“Americans want Congress to shut down the earmark favor factory, and next week I believe House and Senate Republicans will unite to stop pork-barrel spending,” DeMint said.
Earmarks are one subject being discussed by a 22-member GOP transition team that is drawing up plans on how the House will operate when Republicans take over in January. That team includes four freshmen who ran almost universally on cutting the size of government and reducing spending.
“We have some dynamic young leaders that are coming into our conference and you bet we're listening to them,” said Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., head of the transition team.
House leadership elections take place Wednesday. Pending the official floor vote in January, Republicans will confirm Rep. John Boehner of Ohio as the next speaker and Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia as future majority leader.
Things appear to have settled on the Democratic side.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., wants to stay on as Democratic leader, and a Democratic arrangement reached Friday clears the way for Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer to become second in command without a challenge from South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn.
While Pelosi has no challenger, two senior Democrats, Reps. Marcy Kaptur of Ohio and Peter DeFazio of Oregon, wrote to their colleagues urging that the vote be put off until December. “Following the loss of our majority, we should fully understand the causes of our historic losses before we begin the process of rebuilding,” they wrote.
The chances of bipartisan action during the lame-duck session could become clearer when President Barack Obama meets next week with leaders of both parties at the White House.
On the most pressing issue facing Congress, extension of the Bush tax cuts, Obama wants to extend them for couples earning less than $250,000 annually while seeking a compromise, perhaps a temporary continuation, for wealthier taxpayers. Buoyed by their advantage, Republicans are holding firm on permanent extensions for all.
This, Boehner said last week, “will be the most important thing we can do to help create jobs in the country.”