WASHINGTON – Dejected Democrats and invigorated Republicans returned to the Capitol Monday to face a mountain of unfinished business and greet more than 100 mainly Republican freshmen-elect lawmakers determined to change how they do that business.
Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, in line to become speaker when the new Republican-led Congress convenes in January, told GOP newcomers Sunday evening that they may spend their next two years doing just two things: stopping what he called “job-killing policies” and the “spending binge.”
“The American people are sick and tired of the ‘Washington knows best’ mentality. All the power in this town is on loan from the people,” he told the group, which he noted includes seven farmers, six physicians, three car dealers, two funeral home directors, a former FBI agent, a pizzeria owner, an NFL lineman, and an airline pilot.
First, though, lawmakers must slog through the post-election session that, as with past lame ducks, is expected to be unpopular and largely unproductive.
Republicans are looking ahead to January, when they will take back control of the House; many Democratic lawmakers and staff are more focused on cleaning out their desks and looking for new jobs.
Democrats also have the sad occasion of seeing one of their most venerable members go on trial on ethics charges. The House ethics committee opened the trial Monday of 80-year-old Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., the former Ways and Means Committee chairman charged with 13 counts of financial and fundraising misconduct violating House rules.
In an indication of how far the 20-term lawmaker has fallen, Rangel told the four Republicans and four Democrats on the jury that he had run out of money to pay his previous attorney and asked that the trial be postponed until he could get a new lawyer.
High on the agenda for the lame-duck Congress: Lawmakers must act before year’s end on expiring Bush-era tax cuts to protect millions of people from significant tax increases. Congress failed to pass even a single annual spending bill this year, and funds are needed to keep federal agencies financed and avoid a government shutdown. Doctors, meanwhile, face a crippling cut in Medicare reimbursements.
Democrats still command sizable majorities in the House and Senate and have other ambitions for the lame-duck session. Most will go unfulfilled.
There are efforts to give Social Security recipients a $250 check to make up for no cost-of-living increase next year; to extend unemployment benefits; to allow gays to serve openly in the military; to ratify a nuclear weapons reduction treaty with Russia; and to extend government oversight of food safety.
Congress will be in session for a week, break for Thanksgiving week and return on Nov. 29. Lawmakers will continue until they complete their work or give up.
Most of the attention this week will be on activities off the House and Senate floors.
Elsewhere on the Hill, more than 100 incoming House and Senate freshmen started learning the rules of decorum, how to run a congressional office and how not to get lost in the Capitol basement. Two Democratic senators — Joe Manchin, who won the seat of the late Robert Byrd of West Virginia, and Chris Coons, elected to Vice President Joe Biden’s Delaware seat — will be sworn in Monday.
On Tuesday the Senate parties elect their leaders. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada will continue to head the reduced Democratic majority, with Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky still guiding the Republicans.
House leadership elections take place Wednesday. Pending the official floor vote in January, Republicans will confirm Boehner as the next speaker and Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia as future majority leader.
Things appear to have settled on the Democratic side.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., wants to stay on as Democratic leader, and a Democratic arrangement reached Friday clears the way for Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer to become second in command without a challenge from South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn.
The chances of bipartisan action during the lame-duck session could become clearer when President Barack Obama meets next week with leaders of both parties at the White House.
On the most pressing issue facing Congress, extension of the Bush tax cuts, Obama wants to extend them for couples earning less than $250,000 annually while seeking a compromise, perhaps a temporary continuation, for wealthier taxpayers. Buoyed by their advantage, Republicans are holding firm on permanent extensions for all.
This, Boehner said last week, “will be the most important thing we can do to help create jobs in the country.”
On Sunday, Obama said that if Republicans “feel very strongly about it, then I want to get a sense of … how they intend to pay for it.”
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