Lame Duck Session Takes Flight

Remember how easy school was the first week back after a long break?

That was the first week of Congress's lame duck session right before Thanksgiving.

And so the rubber hits the road this week.

House Democrats and Republicans tackled very little legislatively two weeks ago. That changes now.

The House devoted the week before Thanksgiving to welcoming victorious freshmen to Capitol Hill. Journalists focused on infighting among Democrats as they sorted out their internal leadership squabbles. And few people even noticed as the House passed minor, non-controversial bills.

One piece of legislation saluted long-time Penn State football coach Joe Paterno. Another honored the late, legendary, New York Yankees' public address announcer Bob Sheppard.

It's unclear if the New York Congressional delegation will move to revoke their vote if the Yankee brass fails to sign shortstop Derek Jeter. And then Jeter takes Sheppard's signature, pre-recorded introduction with him when he comes up to bat elsewhere next season.

Say for the Boston Red Sox.

Lawmakers have significant issues to tackle in the second week of the lame duck. Democrats want to move key bills important to their base before their majority expires in a few weeks.

And House Republican lawmakers are poised to lay down markers now on tax and spending policies in an effort to project how they'll govern next year.

Let's start with what lawmaker HAVE to do.

Renewing the so-called "Bush-era" tax cuts are perhaps the most controversial issue awaiting lawmakers during the lame duck. But that's not a "must-do." More on that in a moment.

All lawmakers have to do is approve some sort of spending bill to keep the government running past December 4. If they fail to do that, the government shuts down.

Since the election, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has been particularly strident in his rhetoric opposing Democratic spending efforts in the lame-duck. In fact, McConnell argued that he would do all he could to block any sort of "omnibus" spending bill to keep the government open.

A government shutdown may be a rallying cry from many conservative factions who are more than ready to force a standoff with President Obama even before Republicans seize power in the House come January. But that could potentially be the worst-possible scenario for Republicans. A government shutdown means national parks close and the Social Security checks don't go out. The message of the last election is that the public demanded lower taxes and less spending. But voters also want action. And Republicans won't exactly score plaudits if they demonstrate they can't govern. Even before they're running the show.

The White House and Congress approved precisely zero of the 12 annual spending bills that keep the government operational this year. That means both houses of Congress must okay each of them individually (and convince the president to sign them into law). Or, they can blend all of the bills together into a gigantic, catch-call measure known as an omnibus and do it in one, fell swoop.

But there's one more option. They can also just renew spending at current levels by December 4 by approving another Continuing Resolution (known in Congress-ese as a "CR."). A CR will keep the government running until they work all of this out.

If they work it out.

Presumptive House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) is already on record that he thinks Congress should dial back spending to 2008 levels. It's unclear whether Boehner has the appetite to force the issue over the CR. But a Boehner spokesman says Republicans certainly won't help Democrats pass any sort of omnibus bill to fund the government for the next fiscal year.

Now to tax cuts.

Again, this battle is over legitimate, critical elements of policy that defines both Democrats and Republicans. Which is why the public relations battle over tax cuts may even be more important than the actual policy itself.

Since summer, Republicans and some Democrats have demanded that Congress renew all of the tax cuts set to expire at the end of this year. But Democrats are reluctant to do that. In fact, the House Democratic leadership is steadfast in its desire to limit tax reductions to those who make only up to $250,000 annually.

Republicans believe they can appeal to Americans across the board by restoring all of the tax cuts. Democrats feel they curry favor with other segments of the population by arguing the GOP endorses tax cuts for the wealthy.

Expect the tax cut debate to be a pitched battle that will echo well into next year and the 2012 elections.

Then there are other issues.

Democrats would like to try to move the DREAM Act. Short for the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, the legislation that would allow illegal immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as minors to stay in the U.S. if they are in college or the military. Illegal immigration is a radioactive issue on Capitol Hill. And since there's no plan to grapple with a comprehensive immigration reform bill any time soon, expect a proxy fight over the DREAM Act when it comes to immigration policy.

Democrats may have waged internal squabbles two weeks ago over their leadership squads for the new Congress. Expect fights in the Republican ranks to take center stage this week as the GOP sorts out who will chair key committees.

Let's start with the all-important stewardship of the House Appropriations Committee. Appropriations is the panel charged with spending tax money on individual government projects.

For starters, there's an emerging, three-way battle for the Appropriations gavel between Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-CA), currently the top Republican on the Appropriations panel and Reps. Hal Rogers (R-KY) and Jack Kingston (R-GA).

House Republicans voted a moratorium on earmarks for this Congress. Earmarks are efforts by lawmakers to tag specific monies for designated federal projects, often in their home states or districts. Both Lewis and Rogers have long brought home the bacon to their constituents, but have signed off on the GOP pledge of no earmarks. Plus, Lewis may need to secure a waiver to continue at the top of the Appropriations Committee. Lewis chaired the panel for two years when Republicans last held the majority. Then served as the GOP's ranking member on that committee over the past four years.

The question Republicans have to solve is whether Lewis's six years as the leading Republican on that committee constitutes six years as "chairman." Internal GOP rules prohibit lawmakers from "chairing" a committee for more than six years. But Lewis was only a chairman for two.

Expect Jack Kingston to close on the inside rail before this is all sorted out for Republicans. Especially if Republicans argue that appointing either Lewis or Rogers as Appropriations Chairman sends a bad signal when the GOP is striving for fiscal sanity.

Republicans must also determine who will chair the Energy and Commerce Committee, the panel that could play a major role in trying to undo the health care reform bill. Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) is currently the top Republican on the committee. But Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI) is challenging Barton. Some Republicans were ready to throw Barton overboard in June when BP CEO Tony Hayward testified before the Energy and Commerce panel after the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Barton famously apologized to Hayward for how the federal government treated BP.

The Democrats have a bit of their own palace intrigue as well.

Rep. Ed Towns (D-NY) is in line to be the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee. But now Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) is challenging Towns.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) is set to assume the chairmanship of the Oversight Committee. And he's promising thorough if not ruthless investigations of the Obama Administration. Democrats widely admire Towns. But some believe the feisty Kucinich could serve as a better foil to the wily Issa.

The House is also expected to mete out punishment this week to embattled Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY). By mid-week, the full House is expected to consider a plan to censure Rangel for abusing House privileges and failing to pay taxes on a vacation home. Expect Rangel's pleas before the House to consume considerable news oxygen.

Oh and there's one more thing that has to happen in the coming month: the big move.

House Republicans will presumably move into the more coveted slices of Capitol Hill real estate as they prepare to assume the majority. And Democrats will abandon their Boardwalk and Park Place squares on the Congressional Monopoly Board in favor of Baltic and Mediterranean Avenues.

And if the land transfers mirrors what happened when Democrats assumed the majority in late 2006, the move will probably happen in the dead of night, right around Christmas Eve.

Wonder if Democrats will leave a lump of coal in the stockings hung by the fireplaces for Republicans when they move in?