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Lame-Duck Session Looking Longer

Any hope that the lame-duck session would wrap up by the end of next week is all but over. With the legislative docket full of “must do” bills, it appears both the Senate and the House will be in until at least the second week of December.

“I’m not sure it can get done by the end of next week,” one Democratic House aide said. “There’s a good bit of unfinished business that needs to get done.”

Democrats have a lot they want to get done in the next month. Among the priorities: extend the Bush-era tax cuts that are set to expire by the end of the year, pass a continuing resolution to keep the government funded and extend unemployment benefits, pass the immigration reform measure known as the DREAM Act and repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which bans openly gay service members.

Another senior Democratic House aide said that the House schedule likely hinges on the Senate, which typically moves at a slower pace since Democrats must get 60 votes to overcome GOP filibusters on most agenda items.

“It depends on if Republicans are willing to get some things done, or if they are just going to be completely obstructionists,” the aide said.

Congress returns to work Monday after a weeklong recess for Thanksgiving. The first week of the lame-duck session was largely organizational, with Members electing party leaders for the 112th Congress.

House and Senate leaders are scheduled to meet with President Barack Obama on Tuesday, which could determine the path forward on the Bush-era tax cuts.

“I think the meeting is very important to see if they can hash out an agreement,” the aide said. “It could change the direction of what we do.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has insisted that the tax cuts only be extended to the middle class, a nonstarter for many Republicans who have maintained that they be extended for all Americans. Senate Democrats are expected to gather for another caucus meeting next week to discuss the issue.

The Senate could move first, but Pelosi may schedule a test vote on the House side to gear up for the broader debate.

A Democratic leadership aide said the House will “definitely have a vote next week [on tax cuts], but leaders are still discussing the process.”

As Senate Democrats try to come to a consensus on a tax-extension proposal, they could take up the defense authorization measure, which includes a repeal of DADT. Democrats lost a procedural vote to bring the defense bill to the floor in September but hope they may have better luck now: A Pentagon report on the policy is due out Tuesday that is expected to advocate for a repeal. Top military leaders will testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee Dec. 2 and 3 on the report, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) could bring the defense measure to the floor the following week.

But what the chamber considers before the defense bill is unclear. A food safety bill is poised to pass early next week after Members vote on a handful of amendments, including a proposal by Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) to repeal a small piece of the health care law and another from Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) to impose a two-year ban on earmarks.

Also unknown is whether the Senate will consider passing the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, a top priority for the Obama administration. The treaty has hit resistance from some Republicans including Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) over its requirements to modernize nuclear weapons stockpiles. Despite lobbying efforts by Vice President Joseph Biden and Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.), START still lacks the 67 votes needed to ratify it before the end of the year.

Meanwhile, the House is expected to take up a bill Monday to extend Medicare reimbursements for doctors.

And before Dec. 3, both chambers will have to deal with a continuing resolution to keep the government operating; the current CR expires at the end of the week.

The time period for the CR is still under discussion, according to the leadership aide.

The House was also planning to vote on a bill that would allow Haiti orphans to become permanent residents of the U.S. That bill had been on the schedule, but it was pulled because of concerns by Caucus Vice Chairman Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), according to a senior Democratic aide. The bill could be put back on the schedule as soon as Monday, according to the aide. The DREAM Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for immigrants to attend college or serve in the military, also might come up. Reid has promised to bring up that bill for a vote during the lame-duck session.

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