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Once again, the Capitol could be in for a long winter.
Senate aides and senators believe that adjournment this year will be close to Christmas – again. And House Republicans are signaling that they’ll begin their legislating right after the Jan. 5 swearing-in of new members.
And with the House planning to come into session in early January, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) might feel pressure to bring the Democratic-led upper chamber back into session around the same time.
The result? A short vacation for Washington.
“Voters sent a clear message on Election Day that not only didn’t they approve of the policies being pursued by Democrats, but that they expect Congress to listen and shape up,” said Brad Dayspring, a spokesman for incoming Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), explaining the GOP’s desire to get a quick start.
This would be the second year in a row that Congress would be working through the winter. Last year the Senate stayed in session until a blustery Christmas Eve morning to pass the health care reform legislation.
A look at the Senate calendar right now tells a tale of scheduling logjam – and of a shrinking Democratic majority trying to push through several controversial bills while they still can in the five weeks before the New Year.
A relatively non-controversial food safety bill that’s stalled on the floor over procedural squabbling is poised to eat up the beginning of next week as Reid pushes to pass the bill over GOP objections.
In addition, the Senate is expected to take up a defense bill with the repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, a ratification of the nuclear arms treaty with Russia, a funding bill for the federal government, an immigration bill to provide educational opportunities for children of illegals - and the biggest fight of all, whether to extend the Bush-era tax cuts. Since any single senator can effectively grind the Senate to a standstill, the prospects for attempting to pass the legislation and leave town well before Christmas appears increasingly dim.
House Democrats, still in control for the lame-duck period, hope to pass the DREAM Act, but it remains unclear whether that would go as a stand-alone measure or be tacked onto a bill granting permanent resident status to orphaned Haitians. The Haiti legislation is non-controversial and enjoys procedural advantages, making it an attractive vehicle for DREAM advocates. But marrying them could sink both bills.
The tax cuts issue could prove thorniest for Congress, as no solution is yet in sight. A quick compromise – which seems unlikely – could quicken the session.
At the Capitol last week, senators said they’d be willing to work through Christmas Eve to pass the repeal of the “don’t ask” policy.
“The eighth day of Hanukkah,” Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), who is Jewish, chimed in.
“The seventh day,” interjected Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who is also Jewish. “I’m not giving up my eighth day.”
Lieberman told reporters senators were told they’d be in D.C. for “at least three weeks” into December.
“So we’ll be here at least until the week before Christmas,” Lieberman said. “It’s a question of how hard we’re willing to work to get these things done. They’re all important.”
The swearing-in of new lawmakers is just five weeks away, which could come just days after Congress takes its winter breather.
This is a departure from years past when lame-duck sessions could breeze by while the new Congress wouldn't begin heavy legislating until after the president's late January State of the Union address.
To be sure, when power in Congress changes hands, there is typically a rush to show that the new party in control is delivering on campaign-season promises. Democrats “Six for ‘06” took place early in the 110th Congress, and when Republicans took the House in 1994 they got right to work.
The House will have its hands full with other matters when they reconvene in January. Republicans are looking at a slew of changes to the institution’s rules, ways to make the body more efficient plus pressure to repeal health-care overhaul. Incoming speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters last week that they’ll look to repeal health care early.
“We think that Obamacare will ruin the best health-care system in the country, we believe it will bankrupt our nation, we believe it needs to be repealed and replaced with common-sense reforms to bring down the cost of health insurance and you’ll see us move quickly enough,” Boehner told reporters in the Capitol.
Incoming Republican members of the House have been forewarned that they’ll receive the keys to their new offices on Jan. 3, and will also be sworn in that week. They’ll likely have to return to Washington early to pass the rules package through the conference.
Republican leaders have even issued a summary of the first day back: a noon return to the House floor, followed by a quorum call, the speaker will be elected between 12:45 p.m. and 1:45 p.m., at 1:45 p.m. he’ll be sworn in and will give an address, at 2:15 p.m. members will take their oath and later the House will pass the body’s rules.
But the rhythm of action in the House could undergo significant change in the early part of next year.
House leaders, led by Oregon Rep. Greg Walden, are mulling plans to alter the House schedule. Cantor is pushing behind the scenes for the House to adopt a schedule that would have lawmakers alternating weeks. Other options include two weeks in Washington, followed by a week in the district.