In less than two months, the House of Representatives will switch to Republican control. But in the intervening "lame duck" session, there's still plenty of business on the agenda. Here are four of the most pressing issues on lawmakers' plates:
Extending the Bush tax cuts
Unless the tax cuts enacted by George W. Bush's administration in 2001 and 2003 are extended by the end of the year, millions of Americans will get an unwelcome surprise in their January paychecks. The president wants to extend the cuts only for families earning less than $250,000 a year; whereas the Republicans want to extend the cuts for all taxpayers.
Verdict: A toss-up. Both Obama and the GOP say there will be no compromise. Obama maintains that extending all the cuts would be "digging ourselves into an even deeper fiscal hole," while Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell says failing to extend all the cuts would "raise taxes on small business." Republicans are likely to win this battle, says Adam Serwer in The Washington Post, since they have "no incentive to compromise." They even win if the tax cuts expire, as the White House will get the blame. That's because this mess is Obama's fault, counters Merv Benson at Prairie Pundit. "He is unwilling to compromise but asks those who oppose him to give up for nothing."
Repealing "Don't ask don't tell"
An annual defense bill before Congress includes a ban on "Don't ask, don't tell," the prohibition on openly gay soldiers in the U.S. military. Defense secretary Robert Gates said he "would like to see the repeal," but added, "I'm not sure what the prospects for that are."
Verdict: Unlikely. Senators are attempting to have the ban taken out of the defense bill, according to Ed O'Keefe at The Washington Post. This Congress will "punt on it," agrees David Dayen at Firedoglake, given how difficult it will be to pass, and the opposition to it from within the Republican party. "The courts perhaps will present a more favorable option to rid the military of this discriminatory policy."
Extending federal unemployment benefits
Over two million unemployed people will have their benefits cut off in December if Congress fails to extend them. If that sounds unlikely, consider that benefits went unpaid for 51 days during the summer when lawmakers were deadlocked on the question of whether to extend them.
Verdict: A toss-up. The GOP wants spending cuts of around $5 billion a month before it will agree to vote for an extension, and it is unclear whether or not the Democrats will accede to their demand. The Republican approach is indefensible, says the St Petersburg Times, at a time when the party is insisting on "extending the Bush tax cuts for the richest 2 percent of Americans." Does the GOP really think it should be helping the rich before helping the jobless?
Fixing the Medicare payment formula
Unless Congress acts to renew the payment formula for Medicare, payments to doctors for tests, operations, and appointments will drop by 23 percent at the start of December. Many doctors may stop treating patients on Medicare.
Verdict: Likely. "Congress has repeatedly approved temporary fixes," says The New York Times, as it feels Medicare is something not to be tampered with. "Congress should delay the cuts through the end of 2011, and commit to work in the interim to find a permanent solution." It's not a done deal yet though, note Andrew Villegas and Mary Agnes Carey in The Washington Post. "The cost of fixing the formula may still be viewed as prohibitive" by many members of Congress.
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