The long to-do list includes 10 of 12 remaining fiscal 2007 appropriations bills, renewing a series of popular tax breaks, a U.S.-Vietnam trade pact and blocking scheduled Medicare physician payment cuts. Republicans appear to be considering extending the session past Thanksgiving.
But for the first time in 12 years, House Democrats will be at the negotiating table -- possibly joined by Senate Democrats, depending on contested outcomes. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., on Wednesday said he spoke with Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and Majority Whip Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., as well as President Bush about accomplishing five legislative items during the lame duck.
Reid said he would like to see Congress continue to keep the government running, although he did not specify if that meant finishing fiscal 2007 appropriations or simply passing a continuing resolution. Also on the list is bioterror legislation, the off-shore drilling bill, an agreement addressing nuclear weapons proliferation and a package of popular tax cuts.
"My own sense is the [lame-duck] agenda just got cut short," said Thomas Mann, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution. "The incentive for Democrats to allow anything to happen that they wouldn't do themselves is basically zero," added Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute.
If history is a guide, completing major unfinished items before the end of the year might be a tall order. Of the five lame ducks since World War II after at least one chamber experienced a power shift, only in 1980 -- when Republicans wrested control of the Senate -- did the session reach into December. And that was on the back of the Reagan landslide, which gave congressional Republicans a burst of energy and optimism. Significant lame-duck legislation was enacted, including five appropriations bills, a budget reconciliation bill and significant environmental measures.
This year a dejected GOP leadership, coupled with a lame-duck president, might not be compelled to act with the same urgency. Other than doing the bare minimum to keep the government running until next year, Mann said, House GOP leaders are likely to fold their tents and go home.
"I think they're going to be in a regrouping phase and not interested in doing much of anything," Mann said. "The list of things that can get done is very short, and it begins with a [continuing resolution]. The burden of proof will be on anyone who wants to try and add something to that," added one veteran Republican source.
The numerous hurdles to completing fiscal 2007 appropriations include reconciling about $12 billion in extra spending sought by GOP moderates and Democrats with an overall $872.8 billion budget cap. The additions include funding for drought relief, space exploration, health, education, housing, job training, law enforcement and other programs. Any additional spending might trigger a veto fight with the White House, which GOP leaders would have little appetite for in their waning days.
Also, Democrats could better shape the bills to their liking after assuming control next year. When Republicans took back the Senate in 2002, Congress stuck around to pass legislation creating the Homeland Security Department. But lawmakers left town before Thanksgiving after punting 11 remaining spending bills into the following year. In February 2003, Congress finally enacted a single massive omnibus bill.
In 1994, when Republicans swept back to power in the House after four decades, there was no spending mess to clean up -- all appropriations bills had been enacted by the Democrats before the end of the fiscal year. But they did convene a brief lame duck to consider the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade measure.