Low Expectations for Lame Duck II

Like many sequels - think Ali-Frazier II or Meet the Fockers - the second and final week of the 111th Congress' lame duck session, set to open when lawmakers return from Thanksgiving recess on November 29, is likely to prove a disappointment.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., have each promised to stage votes on a host of issues important to their liberal constituency - ranging from immigration reform to workplace discrimination - but analysts see the final week of legislative activity before year's end as likely to produce action on only on a few, mostly time-sensitive, matters.

Most pressing is the need for Congress to pass a continuing resolution, or spending measure, prior to December 4, when the funding stream for the federal government expires. Without a formal appropriation signed into law, the federal government cannot legally continue to operate. "I mean, you just can't shut the government down," said Bob Beckel, a former aide in the Carter White House and now a Fox News contributor. "Republicans have tried that before. They've had a history of that. I think they want to avoid that."

Lawmakers are also expected to hold hearings on the feasibility of repealing the Pentagon's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which prohibits gays and lesbians from openly serving in the armed forces. A proposed repeal of the policy could be attached to a defense authorization bill that is also considered urgently in need of passage.

And then there are the Bush-era tax cuts, which are set to expire at year's end and which emerged as a pivotal issue in congressional elections across the country earlier this month. Democrats have favored extending the tax cuts only for families earning $250,000 a year or less, while Republicans want to extend the tax cuts for all income brackets.

"Given our 9.6 percent unemployment level," said Darrell West, a scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington, "it's an issue where both parties have an incentive to pass tax cuts, so they can go home and say, ‘We're doing something to stimulate the economy.'"

Asked last week if the lame duck session would produce a compromise on the tax cuts, incoming House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, answered curtly: "You better talk to those in charge." Some interpreted the Republican leader's comment as a sign he feels no particular pressure to compromise on the issue, six weeks before he and his party will reclaim the majority in the House.

"Boehner has a real opportunity to get what he wants before the end of the year, and doesn't necessarily have to negotiate with President Obama or the Democrats on it. They're coming his way because that's what the American people want," said Ron Bonjean, who served as an aide to former House Speaker Dennis Hastert. "If it doesn't get done by the end of the year, [Boehner] will get to pass it through the House next year and claim an immediate campaign victory."

Others suggested that there is a compelling incentive for Boehner to cut a deal with lame duck Democrats on the Bush-era tax cuts: namely, the displeasure of the business community, which will have to absorb millions in processing costs if the tax cuts are permitted to lapse on January 1, and tax-withholding systems must be revised for countless workers across the country.

Beyond the time-sensitive tax and spending measures, however, analysts see little likelihood that larger, more polarizing issues will be tackled in the lame duck session. One casualty of the ticking clock could be the START treaty, the nuclear arms accord that President Obama negotiated with the Russians. This has as much to do with GOP misgivings about the treaty as it does with precedent. "Treaties are a big deal. Treaties are one of the most important functions of the U.S. Senate," said Michael Franc of the Heritage Foundation. "And so there's a reason why the Senate has never, ever passed a negotiated treaty in the lame duck session; and it's because you want to take these things seriously."

Veterans of government from both sides of the political aisle agreed there is little chance that Sen. Reid will successfully steer to passage - and perhaps may not even be able to stage votes on - the bills he promised on immigration reform and workplace discrimination.

"In the Democratic Party they have a number of special interests and they all have special things they want to get done," said Beckel. "And so what I think what Harry Reid is doing is saying, ‘You're right, I'm going to get yours up,' even though knowing full well that the House is not going to go along with it and it's very unlikely to ever get to President Obama for his signature. But it's a way of saying ‘OK, I hear you.'"

"They don't necessarily need to do the START treaty and...it is a pipe dream that they're going to be able to take care of immigration reform and ‘don't ask, don't tell,' all these things that Senator Reid laid out as priorities for the lame duck session," said Karl Rove, the former Bush White House strategist, in an interview with Jenna Lee on "Happening Now." "Reid essentially laid out a political agenda...which is completely impossible for the Congress to digest and pass in the handful of days [left]....So what's going to end up happening is a lot of stuff is not going to get done."