WASHINGTON -- Technically, lawmakers are returning to Washington for a final meeting of the old, lame-duck 110th Congress. In reality, the confab on Capitol Hill is nearly all about next year.
Members of the House and Senate and their colleagues-to-be were meeting Tuesday to choose their party leaders and some committee chairmen in closed-door sessions to set the stage for the 111th Congress.
The parallel meetings of incoming and outgoing Congresses have made for some close quarters shared by old, new and vanquished members.
One very familiar figure returned to the lofty Senate, having fought a battle of his own.
"It's good to be back in the Senate," Sen. Edward Kennedy, who has been coping with brain cancer treatment for six months, told reporters Monday as he arrived flanked by his wife, Vicki, and two dogs, Sunny and Splash.
Kennedy is a one-man confluence of governments past, present and future, his arrival an apt prelude to the final session of the 110th Congress.
The House and Senate are meeting this week for one last showdown with President George W. Bush over whether to rescue the troubled auto industry from sinking in a turbulent economy. The plan was headed for a stalemate even before it was introduced.
Beyond the stalled policy, Congress itself chugged to life for the first time since the Nov. 4 election that propelled two senators -- Barack Obama and his running mate, Joe Biden -- to the White House and handed Democrats stronger House and Senate majorities.
As members of the 110th Congress arrive for their last session, those who defeated some of them are attending orientations and joining lawmakers returning next year to choose their party leaders.
Mostly, people were looking ahead.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada appeared briefly for the cameras Monday with six incoming Democrats: Mark Warner of Virginia, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mark Udall of Colorado, Tom Udall of New Mexico, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Jeff Merkley of Oregon.
Even Republicans pivoted, if only because the future is a more pleasant subject than the recent past.
Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, eager to keep his caucus together to prevent Democrats from shutting down filibusters, called a photo opportunity with two Republicans, Jim Risch of Idaho and Mike Johanns of Nebraska, who are replacing retiring senators. The trio chatted until reporters starting asking questions. McConnell responded with a tight smile.
Across the Capitol, 50-odd House freshmen looked to the future as well, with an orientation that covered the minutiae of being a member of Congress -- how to hire a staff and set up an office, how to conform to ethics rules and what to do in a security situation.
Some of what Congress will look like and who will serve in it remains unclear.
Five races in the House and three in the Senate still have not been decided. And the roles of two mavericks and good friends are up in the air.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., is something of a pariah among Democrats because he endorsed Republican Sen. John McCain for president. Many Democratic senators want Lieberman stripped of his Homeland Security Committee chairmanship and kicked out of their caucus.
But Obama has weighed in on Lieberman's side. And from a pragmatic standpoint, Democrats will need Lieberman with them if they hope to shut down Republican filibusters.
McCain, never adored by some of his colleagues, has a similar status in the Republican caucus. McConnell has tangled fiercely with McCain in the past but lavishly complimented the vanquished presidential contender in recent days because the GOP caucus needs every vote to hold off the Democrats' agenda.
Kennedy's return was feted by a cheering staff and a blue-and-white banner reading "Welcome Back Senator."
"I feel fine," Kennedy said. He then talked of actual work that lies ahead, particularly on a health care bill he has been writing from his home in Cape Cod.
"I know Teddy's excited," said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. "He's pumped and ready to go."