Lame duck 101: What to expect from the last days of this Congress

Congress returns to address its last items of business before the new Congress elected in the midterms takes over in January. Here are three things to look for.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
The Capitol is seen at dusk in Washington Monday, as the lame duck Congress reconvened with a stacked agenda and little time to accomplish it.

Back from Thanksgiving feasting, members of Congress are now diving into a plate of leftover business before the newly elected members are seated in January. They aim to finish by the end of next week, though it could take longer.

One way for Americans to judge this lame-duck session is to watch what happens with the menu items – the budget, tax breaks, nominee confirmations, and so on. Will lawmakers tidily put these issues away, or just pick at them?

Another way to consider this period is to see what it may hint about politics to come – what it may show, for instance, about the Republicans’ ability to govern when they control both chambers, as they will come Jan. 6.

Here are three political questions to ask as the session unfolds:

Is House Speaker John Boehner pushing, or being pushed by, the tea party caucus?

This has been the story to watch ever since the tea party wave of 2010. As Speaker Boehner (R) of Ohio himself has commented: “If you’re a leader and nobody’s following you, you’re just a guy out for a walk.” 

Boehner has so far been unable to get out in front of his caucus – whether it was his unsuccessful attempt to stop a partial government shutdown in 2013 or his inability to nudge the House toward immigration reform earlier this year. Watch to see what happens with the budget to get a sense of Boehner’s leadership strength as he looks toward a new House with an even bigger GOP majority.

The federal government runs out of money on Dec. 11. The speaker would like the House to pass one big bill that incorporates 12 funding packages for each of the areas of government spending. He wants the funding to stretch through the fiscal year that ends next Sept. 30 – so that the new Congress can start the year with a clean slate. 

But some conservatives want to use the budget as leverage to push back at President Obama’s immigration executive action, portending another budget showdown.

How are Republicans responding to the president’s immigration action? 

Many Republicans believe the president’s executive move to protect millions of illegal immigrants from deportation is not only an unconstitutional power grab but also bad policy. 

They’re talking about all kinds of countermeasures – from censuring the president, to budget pressure, to passing piecemeal reform legislation of their own. On Tuesday, the House Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on Mr. Obama’s immigration “overreach.”

Americans can expect a GOP-controlled Congress to push back against a president determined to use his pen and his phone to rack up legacy points that he can’t get through Congress. Watching the GOP discussion on immigration can give an idea of how hard Republicans might push in other areas, says Julian Zelizer, a professor at Princeton University.

The lame duck is likely too short of a period for a clear plan to emerge, but look to see what’s gaining momentum, he says.

“If they don’t do anything, it could be a sign that this is really the dynamic that we will have for a while, with the president just working around Congress as Congress complains – unless they give signs they are going to somehow push back either by making other things more difficult for him or by directly challenging his executive power.”

Also worth looking for: whether Boehner and pending Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky are on the same page on this, and other, issues.

Are Democrats cracking up? 

They just got pummeled in the midterm elections, and they’re pointing fingers – at each other. After the election, Nancy Pelosi (D) of California reportedly won a loud voice vote of approval to retain her position as House minority leader, but at least six senators voted against Harry Reid (D) of Nevada as their leader (enough to show displeasure though not enough to knock him out of the post).

Last week, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D) of New York set off a tweeting firestorm with White House loyalists when he pointed to administration missteps with the Affordable Care Act and other issues. 

Fissures could widen between now and Christmas.

For instance, a bipartisan deal over tax breaks may not make it over the finish line. Senator Reid had reportedly signed off on the deal with  Boehner, but the White House threatened a veto because it didn’t include tax breaks to help families and poor people. 

Funding for Syrian rebels fighting the Islamic State could also expose cracks between Democrats in the White House and Congress.

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