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Unemployment Extension, Tax Cuts, and Spending -- What to Expect in the Lame Duck

November 14, 2010 - by Donny Shaw

Congress comes back to work today for the first time since the midterms for what is known as a “lame duck” session, a post-election work period with defeated incumbents still in office, but unaccountable, and newly-elected members waiting in the wings. Lame duck sessions have historically been relatively unproductive, but there is a lot that could happen this time and there’s a certain unpredictability to lame duck sessions that make it extra important that we pay close attention.

The first sign that this lame duck might be…well…lame is that the outgoing Democratic majority has yet to really set an agenda. In fact, they’ve spent some time lowering expectations about what they’ll actually get done. Here’s a quick look at what Congress might take up in the lame duck.

Funding the Government

Before the elections, Congress passed a continuing resolution that keeps the government funded and operating until December 3rd. Recently, the top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee have been developing a “compromise” omnibus spending package to fund the government for the rest of the fiscal year at a level about $20 billion below what Obama has requested. Many Democrats want a higher spending level more in line with Obama’s request — they argue that the high unemployment demands more stimulus — and many Republicans want no spending package in the lame duck at all, preferring to address the issue in the next session when they hold more seats. At this point, another continuing resolution keeping the government running and passing the buck to the next session is the most likely outcome.

Bush Tax Cuts

When President Bush and the 107th Congress passed their 2001 tax cut package, they did so using the filibuster-resistant budget reconciliation rules, which require that all legislation passed using them sunset automatically after 10 years. The tax cuts are set to expire on January 1, and whether or not Congress should step in and renew them is one of the most contentious and important debates in U.S. politics right now. Obama, as we have know since he was a candidate, wants to extend the cuts for all earned income up to $250,000, but let the cuts for income above that level expire per the 2001 law. Most Democrats in Congress support the Obama plan. Republicans, on the other hand, want all the cuts extended and made permanent. Between these two options, various compromises have been floated — extend all cuts for 3 years, “decouple” and extend the upper-income cuts temporarily and the lower-income cuts permanently, etc. It’s totally unclear what’s going to happen with this.

Extending Unemployment Benefits

The current extension of federal unemployment benefits is set to expire on November 30th. If Congress fails to extend the benefits, an estimated 2 million long-term unemployed workers will be without a government lifeline by the end of the year. For the past couple years, Congress has repeatedly passed legislation to keep the extended benefits active (albeit with a few lapses). But it has recently become very difficult and quite time consuming for the Democrats to overcome filibusters on the issue in the Senate. The disagreement is typical — Republicans want the cost of the benefits offset while Democrats want to let the deficit spending produce a stimulus. Legislation to extend benefits is not on the calendar this week for either chamber at this point (House, Senate), but it could still be added. The legislation will likely include extensions of other expiring programs, like the “doc fix,” which overrides Medicare’s payment formula and stops doctors from getting hit with a pay cut. If the unemployment extension is not done this week, the filing deadline will almost definitely expire, at least temporarily, because Congress will not be in session next week and won’t return until Nov. 29th.

Other Domestic Policy

The backlog of bills the Democrats want to get done before losing their strong majority next session is extensive, but a handful of bills are clear front-runners for lame duck action.

  • Repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is a priority for the Administration and the Democrats, and they know that if they don’t get it done before January, it won’t happen until 2013 at the earliest. Repeal language is currently included in the pending 2011 Defense bill, but there is some talk about a deal to strip it out.
  • The DREAM Act is also a longstanding goal. It would give some undocumented immigrants would establish a path to citizenship for some undocumented immigrants under the age of 35 who graduate high school or promise to serve in the military. Applicants for citizenship under the DREAM Act would have to meet certain criteria designed to prevent the bill from being exploited and to weed out applicants that have been in trouble with the law. Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid [D, NV] promised his constituents in Nevada during a campaign event that he would hold a vote on the bill in the lame duck session.
  • The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act has been waiting for a vote in the Senate for years. The bill would give the FDA greater regulatory powers over the national food supply and food providers with the goal of preventing food-borne illnesses and ensuring food safety. More specifically, it would increase the frequency of FDA inspections of food processing plants, expand the FDA’s traceback capabilities for when outbreaks do occur, give the FDA mandatory recall authority, and require food facilities to have safety plans in place in order to mitigate hazards. The House passed a similar bill in in July 2009 (H.R.2749), but the bill has stalled in the Senate over concerns that it would be too tough on small farms. Harry Reid filed for cloture on the bill before adjourning for the midterms and it is scheduled to come up for a vote this week on overcoming a Republican filibuster. You can read more details on the most recent iteration of the bill here.

Obviously, there are lots of moving parts in all of this, and thins will be developing very quickly over the next several weeks in Congress. Keep checking back here for updates (or just subscribe by RSS) and we’ll do our best to bring you the best information about these important issues as soon it’s available.

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  • sontagkc1 11/15/2010 1:17am

    While I hold out hope of a 5th Tier I feel it is probably not going to happen and is sad for the millions of Americans this will force into bankruptcy who are just barely hanging on. We fight just to have jobs to apply for after two years of being laid off I have applied for nearly every job and to every employer that would even consider hiring me, with only a handful of interviews over the past two years. At 48 it is nearly impossible to get anyone to hire you and here I sit with no health insurance and no job, all my savings and 401K money gone.

  • Comm_reply
    DeborahJBrown 11/15/2010 2:29pm

    I think one of the reasons why there is not as much response from the people regarding extending benefits is that most people are probably in or past the final tier need a tier V. There are fewer people in the tiers now because the layoffs slowed down after a year or so — even though they never lifted hiring freezes when businesses were down to skeleton crews there were no more new layoffs. So, here we are millions of Americans having expired all benefits and while we are willing to fight for extensions for those who remain on the tiers, it seems everyone needs a tier V until they begin to reinstate jobs. Long-term unemployed are targeted for “do not hire” and have the greatest need. It’s sad that America’s workers are ignored on Capitol Hill.

  • tolbertme 11/15/2010 9:48am

    No Bush Tax Cut Extension for Couples > $250,000 or No Extension at All. The U.S. can not afford it.
    And repeal the unfunded Medicare Pard D also.

  • Jess01869 11/15/2010 10:02am

    I can’t believe they would even consider the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy at $700 billion dollars instead of the $65 billion to extend benefits for the dirt poor that pay taxes. Holidays are a huge time for money being put back into the economy…doesn’t help when 2 million plus individuals are completely cut off from benefits and have to go on welfare by the first week of December. Congress should AT LEAST extend the existing tiers 1-4 and work hard to add a 5!

  • Comm_reply
    DeborahJBrown 11/15/2010 2:30pm

    I completely agree with you on the Bush tax cuts. There is very little economic economic benefit in giving the highest paid individuals the tax cuts. It’s insulting to think that Capitol Hill is more concerned that Paris and Nicole want a break than it is about long-term unemployed workers, many who are aged.

  • seanurse 11/15/2010 12:26pm

    wow our senators are something else. They just returned to congress and already there not in session tomorrow!!!!!!!we are all starving and stressed out while they sip on drinks and have a party. They better pass a tier five or god help our country as it will go up for grabs. They probably heard about our emailing tomorrow.

  • Comm_reply
    DeborahJBrown 11/15/2010 2:31pm

    That’s why they get the “big bucks” I suppose!

  • Comm_reply
    Hopeful2010 11/15/2010 4:07pm

    I continue to read articles that the extension being considered is to extend tiers 1-4, nothing about the expansion of benefits. Has anyone read any encouraging news on the Americans Want to Work Act? or news on Congress voting to help the 99ers?

  • seanurse 11/15/2010 7:27pm

    well at least the t.v stations are all talking about the extensions for tier five. hopefully they will pass it and extend all the other extensions too. None of this is our fault. I will keep the faith just as before in july but I must say this has really taking a tole on my health. I don’t know what to do anymore. MY rent is now 15 days late and she gave me a five day notice. I never thought after all my working years I would end up broke and no job. everything I had is gone. The only thing keeping me going is my 3 year old grandson. GOD PLEASE WATCH OVER US ALL AND TAKE THIS STRESS AWAY AND GIVE US PEACE. AMEN

  • Comm_reply
    badams82 11/20/2010 7:18am

    Indeed, just pray. Job displacement MEANS INVOLUNTARY UNEMPLOYMENT! IF, we were lazy we wouldn’t have had a job from which we were laid off to begin with. Nobody wants to depend on the next “unemployment extension.” It’s called necessity and survival hopefully they will pass tier five in time. All,I have to say is that if we don’t get it all those who voted republicans in better kick themselves in their behinds. They are the main opponents against the extensions.

  • Adambomb 11/15/2010 8:08pm

    Today i saw a father walking down the street with his little girl prob. about six or seven. He was carrying a suitcase and you could tell that was probably all they had left. That breaks my heart, come on guys cant you see people are suffering. Thats not what AMERICA is about. What are people supposed to do when you cant get work anywhere.

  • Adambomb 11/15/2010 8:14pm

    Oh dont forget that you cant even go into a biss. anymore and ask for an application they just tell you to go to there website, its so faceless.

  • imasmartcookiegmailcom 11/16/2010 8:29am

    But while they prate of economic laws, men and women are starving. We must lay hold of the fact that economic laws are not made by nature. They are made by human beings. – Franklin D. Roosevelt

  • Kerlynne 11/16/2010 8:50am

    WE NEED TO DO SOMETHING PEOPLE… START NOW. CALL, email your Senators as part of a National Call-in to Congress Action Day this Tuesday, November 16.

    Tell them we need the unemployment extention and don’t be shy!!

  • Comm_reply
    imasmartcookiegmailcom 11/16/2010 9:05am

    I just called Senator Menedez’s office. It was SUPER easy using this link. <>

    Just type in your phone number & email, then your phone rings. They tell you they are connecting you & voila! Your Senator’s office.


    Do you want to see what happens when 2 million people lose their lifeline before Christmas? I don’t.

  • danijos 11/16/2010 8:54am

    All in the same boat again with the extension, with more Rep’s to say NO now, not less but more, so I wouldnt expect the extension anytime soon, and dont hold your breath for a tier v.

  • SunshineHybrid 11/16/2010 2:13pm

    Well it is very clear what is going on. It is either give the money people their tax break or we will let millions starve or freeze to death until we get it. Does this make you think of any other history events that the down trodden were taken advantage by the rich. This is America, I really did not think that this would happen in America. Where is God in this nightmare to strike down the oppressors. I have to believe they will do the right thing and add to the 99ers.

  • leomoon11 11/16/2010 7:09pm
    They tell you they are connecting you & voila! Your Senator’s office.
  • cnohope 11/17/2010 12:19pm

    i say it’s time we take back our country we need to find out were all the congress members live and all the ones against helping the unemployed ‘we should go and stand in front of their house by the thousand until these asshole help the people that’s worked all there life,and are only unemployed because of there bullshit ass WAR I SAY LETS DO IT

  • badams82 11/20/2010 7:25am

    All,the representatives that were asking for our votes a couple weeks ago flooding our e-mails and phones with calls better do something for those votes they gained. If we gave you support keep your word and stand up for us. In the end actions speak louder than words.

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