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As Lame-Duck Session Begins, Congress to Focus on Keeping Government Open

Other priorities include funding to fight Ebola, and authorization of military force in the Middle East.

Fiscal matters, foreign policy issues, and residual partisan haggling await lawmakers in the lame-duck session that starts this week, with the elephant in the room being that Republicans will shortly take over the Senate and full control of Congress.

However, that new Congress elected on Nov. 4 doesn't officially take power until January. And an omnibus spending bill, or some other more-temporary measure, must be taken up by this outgoing House and Senate to extend government funding beyond Dec. 11 and keep agencies operating.

The Senate will also begin examining the qualifications of Loretta Lynch, whom Obama announced Saturday as his pick to be the next Attorney General. Lynch, the current U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, has so far earned praise and has been confirmed by the Senate twice before. But it's unclear how quickly her confirmation will move, and some Republicans have complained they don't believe Senators who were defeated for re-election should have a chance to vote on her nomination.

Other matters facing lawmakers include whether more money should go to address the Ebola outbreak and whether potential use of military force in the Middle East should be authorized. On Wednesday, the Senate Appropriations Committee is to hold a hearing on the government's response to the Ebola outbreak, with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Thomas Frieden among the witnesses.

Against this backdrop, reelected and new members from both chambers will also choose their party leaders this week and next for the next session.

For his part, President Obama takes off to China, Myanmar, and Australia for four summits and meetings with allies and other Asian leaders, including a meeting with President Xi Jinping. 

Given the impending shift in Senate control, some lawmakers are urging that legislative efforts these last lame-duck weeks of the 113th Congress—which are not yet completely scheduled—should be limited to keeping government functioning and other must-pass legislation.

"Issues that are not required to be determined now—not required to be determined in the lame-duck session—should be considered by new members of Congress, the ones the voters just elected," argues Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas, the chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

But other lawmakers and some outside interests are pushing to get more things done.

Such items range from renewal of dozens of already-expired tax breaks to extending the soon-to-expire Terrorism Risk Insurance Act, to an Internet sales tax measure. Some of the hoped-for tax extenders would address popular items and those sought by businesses, such as tax breaks for research and development and purchases of equipment, the mortgage interest deduction, and a child-care credit.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has called for extending more than 50 such tax breaks and credits that lapsed last year through next year, to allow for more time to address a comprehensive tax-code overhaul sought by both parties. In addition, the Internal Revenue Service is prodding Congress to reach a decision on extenders before the end of the year or risk complicating next year's tax-filing season. House Republican aides say a tax-extender package during the lame duck is possible. Democrats may also seek to act on judicial picks while still in control of the Senate, which must confirm such nominations. For now, GOP opposition can still be thwarted, because Democrats changed Senate rules so that a nominee could be confirmed with a simple majority in the 100-seat chamber. Previously, it took 60 votes to get past a procedural hurdle.

Other lame-duck squawking and controversy could erupt if Obama keeps his promise to Hispanic leaders that he'd take executive action before the end of the year on immigration reform. However, little of this is expected to play out loudly during this first week back in Washington for lawmakers, as party leaders and their members in both chambers more-privately sort out their agendas and strategies. Most of the opening days of the lame duck are instead to be devoted to welcoming receptions and dinners for just-elected members-to-be, orientation programs, and intra-party leadership elections.

The Senate will be back in session Wednesday afternoon. And House Republicans who will continue to control that chamber next session—but with an even larger majority—will officially reconvene in Washington that same day. That evening, a "Leadership Election Candidate Forum" will be held. Then, on Thursday, the reelected and newly elected members will vote behind closed doors on their leaders for the next two-year session. The next day, Republicans will meet again to consider their party rules for the 114th Congress. House Speaker John Boehner and the chamber's top three other GOP leaders are each expected to win approval in those internal elections, although races for lower-level posts could take time to play out.

In the Senate, orientation programs also are scheduled for new members. Both Senate Democrats and Republicans will elect their leaders for the next session Thursday morning. No major switch-ups are expected, with current Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky poised to become majority leader. Sen. Harry Reid, who has been the top Democrat since 2005, is expected to easily slide into the minority leader spot.

Unlike McConnell, House rules will then require Boehner to be formally reelected speaker in January by a majority of all of the 435 House members who show up for the vote (Democrats included). If some ornery conservatives and tea-party-affiliated members—including members-elect who pledged during their campaigns not to support Boehner—want to try and embarrass the Ohioan, that is likely to happen in that vote. But as a group, they appear to have little momentum or any replacement to defeat him.

Meanwhile, House Democrats led by Nancy Pelosi are set to hold their leadership elections on Nov. 18, with both Pelosi and other top leaders unlikely to face opposition. But competitive races for open ranking-member slots on some key committees are already poised to provide some intra-party tension.

The extent of legislative action that will occur during this lame-duck period is not yet set in stone. Republicans have scheduled action in the House the week of Nov. 16 on two bills targeting the science behind Environmental Protection Agency regulations, and a third measure dealing with manufacturing.

Click here for more details on this week's congressional agenda. 

Jordain Carney, Dustin Volz, Sophie Novack, Clare Foran, and George E. Condon Jr. contributed to this article.

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