Coming off an election in which voters unleashed their fury over Washington's perceived inability to grapple with tough issues, lawmakers spent much of the first week of the lame-duck session going after low-hanging fruit while leaving a number of big-ticket items on the table.
As a result, when they return from their Thanksgiving break on Nov. 29, they'll have four weeks before Christmas to tackle a slew of spending and tax-related issues that have divided party leaders on Capitol Hill for months.
Atop the to-do list is how to fund the federal government through the end of the year. Lawmakers passed a stopgap bill before the election that will keep the government from shutting down through Dec. 3.
It is unclear whether Senate Democrats will offer a continuing resolution to keep government running at currently funded levels or aim to pass an omnibus bill, which would roll a dozen appropriations bills into one.
Republicans oppose the latter, saying Democrats want to jam through spending proposals and avoid the proper congressional review and scrutiny.
"If this election showed us anything, it's that Americans don't want Congress passing massive trillion-dollar bills that have been thrown together behind closed doors," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said last week from the Senate floor.
Despite the GOP opposition, Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, is said to be cautiously optimistic about Democrats' chances of shepherding through an omnibus bill. Corralling the 60 votes that likely will be needed to pass an ominbus bill could prove more difficult now that all but a handful of Republicans have sworn off earmarks that likely would be included in such a spending proposal.
Asked on Monday how Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, plans to move forward, Jim Manley, his spokesman, said no decision has been made.
Both parties, meanwhile, continue to play a game of political chicken over whether to extend the tax cuts established under President Bush in 2001 and 2003, leaving most taxpayers in limbo as to whether they'll face tax increases at the beginning of next year.
Party leaders essentially have stuck to their pre-election arguments, with Republicans calling for an across-the-board extension and Democrats arguing that the tax cuts should apply only to individuals making less than $200,000 or households making less than $250,000 annually.
(Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, also floated a proposal to allow the tax cut to expire only on people making more than $1 million a year.)
Democrats say that letting the tax cuts expire for wealthier Americans will generate $700 billion over 10 years that could be used to help rein in the deficit and national debt, which totaled $13.789 trillion on Monday.
Mr. Reid last week signaled a willingness to offer up-or-down votes on both proposals, while Mr. McConnell argued that the "single best thing we could do in Washington to achieve that goal is to prevent a tax hike that's about to hit every taxpayer and hundreds of thousands of small businesses."
President Obama is expected to meet with leaders from both parties on Nov. 30 to try to find common ground on this and other issues.
The tax cuts and spending bills were put on the back burner last week, as Democrats fought among themselves over how to handle the tax cuts and tried to breathe life into all-but-dead issues, announcing plans to again push proposals that would grant a path to citizenship for some children of illegal immigrants and repeal the policy barring openly gay men and women from serving in the military.
Meanwhile, Republicans spent much of the week playing up their caucuses' decision to temporarily agree not to request earmarks, a decision that impacts less than one half of 1 percent of the $3.5 trillion national budget. The move received support from at least two Democrats, including Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, who announced plans to attach an amendment to food safety legislation before the Senate that enacts a stricter earmark moratorium than what Republicans adopted and last through the fiscal year 2013.
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