Congress returns to Washington Wednesday
Lame duck session marks final few weeks of Democratic control in the Senate
Triumphant Republicans return to Washington Wednesday to prepare for a new era of GOP dominance on both sides of the Capitol.
But first, they have to get through a short, final Senate session under Democratic control.
The post-election lame duck session should be fast-paced as lawmakers work to clear leftover business, including a must pass bill to fund the government, and other bills to arm Syrian rebels and extend expiring tax breaks. Republican leaders are anxious to start the new Congress in January with a clean slate when they could control as many as 54 seats.
Senators who were defeated in the last election must return to the Capitol to vote on these items. But newly-elected senators, excited after their victories, can’t vote until they are sworn-in in January.
The incoming freshmen will be here for three days of intensive orientation. Unlike past orientations, when senators were given heavy binders and detailed briefings about foreign policy, national security, and other current topics, this week’s sessions will deal more with the practical matters of operating a Senate office, including hiring, disbursement, and ethics rules. They will be conducted by individual senators who will share their experiences.
There will be a special dinner honoring the new members and their spouses Wednesday night in the Capitol.
The incoming members will also be assigned temporary office space for use until they move into their permanent digs sometime next year. Like an overcrowded elementary school, those offices will be housed in trailers sandwiched into the courtyard of the Russell Senate office building.
While the lame duck agenda is packed, one controversial item the Senate may not deal with until next year is approving Loretta Lynch to be the new Attorney General. Democrats signaled Tuesday they are unlikely to try to confirm her even though if they moved now, they could approve her with just Democratic votes.
Democrats say Lynch, who has been confirmed twice by the Senate, is highly qualified and will be approved regardless of who controls the chamber.
“There may be some who feel they have to vote no simply because it’s a nominee by President Obama,” Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, said in an MSNBC interview Tuesday. “But the vast majority of Republicans and Democrats will vote for her. She’s superbly qualified.”
However, most Republicans don’t want to rush the process, preferring to explore more carefully Lynch’s background and views on immigration and other hot-button subjects.
“Ms. Lynch will receive fair consideration by the Senate. And her nomination should be considered in the new Congress through regular order,” Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell warned over the weekend.
Tensions between the parties are already high after a bruising two-year session that was marked by gridlock and partisanship.
Senators are now bracing for President Barack Obama to announce controversial executive orders to change immigration laws, which could be released during the lame duck. Lawmakers and aides are guessing the President will wait until after December 11, which is when Congress needs to clear that critical funding bill to keep government operating.
Republicans are vehemently opposed to Obama revising immigration laws on his own and have warned that doing so could make it difficult to get anything of consequence done during the lame duck.
“What the President does over the next two months is really going to set the tone for the next two years in Washington,” Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, a member of the GOP leadership, said on Fox News Sunday. “So, I think it would be like the President pulling the pin out of the hand grenade and throwing (it) in as we’re actually trying to work together. I’m hoping that cooler heads at the White House prevail.”
Other items Senate Democratic leaders hope to bring to the floor include a package that would extend some personal and business tax breaks set to run out at the end of the year along with the annual Department of Defense bill that will likely include extending approval Congress already gave for training and equipping Syrian rebels.
They will also vote on billions in new funding for the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, billions more for the military operations against ISIS, and possibly an NSA reform bill written by the Democratic chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which would rein in the government’s ability to make bulk collections of phone and Internet data. However, Republicans are doubtful this bill will be debated now.
Senate Democratic leaders are considering a vote on the Keystone pipeline during the lame duck, according to a source familiar with the issue. A decision hasn’t been finalized but such a move could boost Louisiana Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu in her run off race.
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, meanwhile, also has a long list presidential nominations he wants to clear.
The Senate could start debate on authorization of military force to give formal approval for U.S. military action in Syria and Iraq. However, aides in both parties said that vote on any new authorization will likely be put off until the new Congress.
The U.S./Iranian nuclear talks could also take center stage during the lame duck, as those negotiations hit a critical deadline Nov. 24. There is bipartisan support in the Senate for new sanctions against Iran if those talks fail.
New and returning senators will gather privately Thursday morning in the Capitol to elect new leadership for their respective caucuses. There are no major changes expected in the leadership ranks, with Sen. Mitch McConnell set to become majority leader and Reid set to become minority leader.