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Road Map: Still No Agenda for Lame Duck

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid plans votes on issues that play to the Democratic base but aren’t likely to win enough support to clear Congress and reach the president.

Republicans and Democrats appear content to end the 111th Congress the way it started, by following a “change” election with a round of fiercely partisan fighting over an agenda that even many Democrats have little interest in.

In fact, the House and Senate returned to Washington, D.C., on Monday for the lame duck with few solid details about what will be on their plates beyond partisanship.

House Democrats may stay in through Dec. 17 as the Senate is expected to do. Or Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) may send her troops home at week’s end and call them to the Capitol only after the Senate finishes work on a long-term continuing resolution that keeps the government funded and operating.

Senate Democrats have an agenda packed with political items such as a repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” but on the biggest issue of the lame duck — how to handle the expiration of the President George W. Bush-era tax cuts — the way forward won’t be decided until after today’s special Conference meeting.

“I think we’re going to have to kind of come to grips with the realities of how much time is left and what’s real and what can really pass. And what the scale of importance is of some of those things,” Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) said Monday. “We’ll just have to take stock.”

Aside from resolving the immediate funding problem of a CR that expires Friday, the only certainty is that despite elections earlier this month signaling the public’s demand for more change, neither party seems eager to find bipartisan agreement on anything of consequence.

That dynamic is particularly on display in the Senate, where Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has announced that — objections from within his party notwithstanding — he will force votes on DADT repeal and a package of modest immigration reforms.

“Most Republicans assumed Democrats would come back with a modified tone, a modified agenda to reflect what happened on Nov. 2, and that just didn’t happen,” a senior Senate GOP aide said, adding that Republicans see no need to shift their own approach.

“I think we feel like we’re on solid ground on the policy, and I think we’ve proven over the last two months we’re on solid ground politically,” the aide said.

Democrats counter with their own refrain that the lack of action on these items — which is holding up work on taxes and a CR — is a direct result of the GOP’s intransigence and that it is Republicans who should have learned a lesson from the elections.

“We could do things a lot faster if Republicans wouldn’t filibuster everything,” a Democratic leadership aide said Monday. “Our hope [was] that after the elections, things would change. But they haven’t,” the aide added.

Even on the issue of what to do with the tax cuts, partisanship is likely to carry the day, at least in the short term.

Reid and Pelosi are both set on pursuing at least one vote on legislation extending only the middle-class tax cuts, which has long been the priority of Democrats in the White House and on Capitol Hill, in order to put members of both parties on record. The idea, according to Democratic aides in both chambers, is to choreograph as many votes as possible with Republicans voting against middle-class tax cuts so candidates can use those votes against the GOP in the 2012 election cycle.

After that, however, things become less clear. Reid and his colleagues are hoping today’s nearly four-hour, closed-door caucus meeting will yield a strategy on the tax issue. Several Democratic aides predicted that while Reid has committed to holding a vote on the middle-class-only legislation and a GOP version extending all the tax cuts, he could pursue a number of compromise bills that fall between the two.

One option would be to offer a series of bills that incrementally raise the income level defining middle class from $250,000. A second option would be a bill that permanently extends the middle-class cuts — but only extends them for top earners for two or three years.

The rest of the House’s schedule remains in flux as lawmakers scramble to wrap up their work for the year. One item that seems destined for attention is child nutrition. Later this week, the House is slated to send that bill, which has been a priority of first lady Michelle Obama, to the president for his signature.

Jessica Brady contributed to this report.

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