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It’s Looking Like a Lame Duck

It may be one of the more unpredictable election years in recent memory. But one thing about 2010 is all but certain: Members will be back after Nov. 2 for a lame-duck session.

Democrats and Republicans alike are expecting to return to Capitol Hill to at least address some type of year-end omnibus appropriations bill, given that Congress still hasn’t started marking up any of its regular spending bills and hasn’t passed a budget. And there’s a growing list of other legislative cats and dogs that Members are floating for a post-election session — everything from the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and other gay rights bills to a highway safety measure. Some, like ENDA, are liberal priorities that have been languishing amid concerns from moderate Democrats facing tough re-election bids, while others, such as the highway safety bill, simply don’t have a slot on the Senate’s crowded floor calendar.

And then there is the White House’s bipartisan fiscal commission, which is tasked with cobbling together a massive deficit-cutting package shortly after Nov. 2.

“I’ve always thought there was a likelihood of a lame duck,” Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad said Tuesday. The packed calendar and the shortened sessions in a campaign year are to blame, the North Dakota Democrat said.

“It’s understandable in the sense that health care and financial reform — not to mention all the other things — those are two huge things, and they both took longer than anticipated, so that pushes everything back,” Conrad said. Conrad, as well as Republicans such as Budget ranking member Judd Gregg (N.H.), is hopeful that the deficit commission will come up with a bipartisan package in time for a lame-duck vote.

“It could be a huge deal,” Conrad said. “I hope the commission is able to reach an agreement. We could get the country on a sound long-term fiscal path.”

No matter where you turn, lawmakers seem to have a wish list.

“I’ve got lots of things I want to do” in a lame duck, including the highway safety bill, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said. “They are usually not as successful as the off-year season, for obvious reasons, but I just think we should work.”

Liberals, meanwhile, who have been increasingly frustrated as they see long-sought priorities start to slip away, are hopeful they can score a victory or two in a lame-duck session.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva, co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said there are a host of items he’d like to see that have been put “way on the back burner” — everything from pro-union legislation to environmental regulations to a revision of the No Child Left Behind law.

“It’s at least an opportunity for some progressive legislation,” the Arizona Democrat said, noting that Democrats are likely to lose seats and have a harder time passing such legislation come 2011.

For bills like ENDA, Grijalva said, “the lame duck would be the last chance, quite honestly, for the foreseeable future.”

Senate Republican leaders, meanwhile, doubted Democrats would be able to push much through in a post-election session, especially if their party picks up as many seats as it expects.

“I know there’s that fear, but it’s harder to do than you think,” Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl said. The Arizona Republican said both parties listen to what the voters are saying in an election year, and it would be very difficult for Democrats to turn around a few weeks later and muscle through an agenda that had just been rejected.

Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) agreed, noting that lame-duck sessions typically don’t accomplish much.

“I don’t think a chastened Democratic majority is going to have the appetite for just thumbing their nose at the American population that just tried to send them a message,” he said.

A senior Senate Democratic aide agreed with the Republicans — to a point. “A lot of this is going to depend on how many votes we lose and how emboldened Republicans feel,” the aide said. “If they win a bunch of seats, some of the extraneous stuff will be hard to get done.”

Republicans are also slamming the lame-duck chatter as more evidence of the Democrats’ inability to govern.

“The fact that there is already speculation about a lame-duck session is a sad commentary on Washington Democrats’ irresponsibility,” said Michael Steel, spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio).

With nine weeks of floor time left in the House, Democrats have yet to move a single appropriations bill and haven’t even finished up the war supplemental yet, Republicans noted.

The Senate Democratic aide said they expected President Barack Obama to try to at least finish up the spending bills and clear the decks for the next session, rather than kicking them into next year.

“I think the president is going to want it off his plate,” the aide said.

A House Democratic leadership aide cautioned, however, that it is still too early to know what will be on deck and wasn’t prepared to concede that appropriations won’t be finished before November: “You’re getting way ahead of yourself. We’ve got months of work and an election before we reach that point.”

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