WASHINGTON (AP) — Congress returns to Washington this week for a lame-duck session to try and clean up a lengthy roster of unfinished business, even as jubilant Republicans prepare to take over the Senate for the first time in eight years come January.
The agenda includes funding the government into the new year, renewing expiring tax breaks for individuals and businesses, the annual defense policy measure and a roster of President Barack Obama's nominations. Also pending are Obama's requests for money to combat Islamic State militants, battle Ebola and deal with the influx of unaccompanied Central American children who have crossed into the U.S.
Democrats relinquishing the Senate have outlined an ambitious agenda, while House GOP aides say the agenda for the Republican-controlled chamber is more fluid pending discussions. GOP leaders would like to start next year with as clean a slate as possible but conservatives could press to hold off making deals with Senate Democrats in hopes of getting better outcomes next year.
In the meantime, negotiations are already underway between the House and Senate Appropriations Committees on a $1 trillion-plus spending bill for the budget year that began Oct. 1. A temporary funding measure expires Dec. 11.
Aides have been going through the 12 annual spending bills line by line in hopes of wrapping the fiscal 2015 bills into an omnibus measure and passing it before the deadline. But conservatives such as Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, are likely to oppose any omnibus bill and press for a short-term funding measure into next year so Republicans can draft new versions of the bills then.
"Do you go for a short period or do you finish out the fiscal year to clean the slate?" asked Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D.
GOP leaders, including House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, want to complete action on the 2015 appropriations cycle this year and get a fresh start when they take complete control of Congress in January. Incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is believed to feel the same way but hasn't said so publicly.
The tax-writing committees have been slower to engage on renewing a bundle of expired tax breaks like the deduction for state and local sales taxes and the research and experimentation credit. Some of the so-called tax extenders, like tax credits for renewable energy, are controversial with conservatives, but tax filing season is closing in and the provisions always pass in the end.
The House has passed legislation that would make several of the tax breaks permanent while the Senate approach has been for a two-year extension of the package of tax breaks, which is seen as more likely to prevail in the end.
Then there's the question of what to do about Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria. Authority to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels to fight the terror group expires in December and lawmakers will decide whether to renew the authority, though debate on a new congressional authorization to use military force is likely to wait until next year.
Obama also is requesting more than $5 billion to pay for sending additional noncombat troops to Iraq as well as munitions and other military and intelligence requirements to fight the militants. He also requested last week $6.2 billion in emergency money to confront Ebola at its source in West Africa and to secure the United States against any possible spread. There's also a pending $3.7 billion request to address unaccompanied immigrant children.
The annual defense authorization bill has passed every year for more than five decades and the chairmen of the House and Senate Armed Services are eager to avoid breaking the streak this year. Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., and Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., are both retiring after long tenures in Congress.
One of the few must-do items is renewing the government's terrorism risk insurance program, eagerly sought by the construction, real estate and hospitality industries. The program serves as a backstop in the event of a terrorist act that causes more than $100 million in losses.
Congress is also expected to pass legislation extending the ban on state and federal taxes on access to the Internet and legislation to permit satellite television providers to continue to retransmit broadcast television station signals.
Democrats plan to confirm a roster of Obama nominees to federal courts and agency posts while they still control the Senate. They infuriated Republicans last fall by muscling through a rules change that lowered the filibuster threshold to a simple majority instead of 60 votes in most instances. But approving nominations is still a time-consuming process, and it's not clear how much time demoralized Democrats will want to spend pushing through Obama's candidates as the holidays loom.