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Lame-duck Congress faces many tasks

Spending bill, tax breaks among items on agenda

WASHINGTON -- The ousted Republican-led Congress returns to the Capitol this week to try to shorten a long legislative to-do list, while the just-elected members will vote for new leaders who will help set the direction the parties will take next year.

At minimum, Congress must pass a temporary spending bill to keep the government running until the new Congress takes office. Getting much else accomplished may be difficult.

"Democrats won't allow anything to pass they don't like, and Republicans have little interest in starting the Democratic reign early," said Thomas Mann, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution. "It could be a very short lame-duck session."

As the old Congress wraps up, the freshman lawmakers will arrive. They will not be sworn in until January, but they will meet with President Bush, pick up congressional IDs, and learn everything from the proper attire for the House and Senate chambers to the location of the members-only gym. And they will have a say in choosing leaders.

Representative Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, is poised to become the first female speaker of the House. The choice for House majority leader, the number two slot, is between a moderate and a leading antiwar Democrat.

Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the current minority whip, faces Representative John Murtha of Pennsylvania, whose call for US withdrawal from Iraq made him a favorite of party liberals.

Hoyer's supporters, including some of the new centrist Democrats, point to his efforts to elect them. He visited 80 districts and raised more than $8 million. Backers of Murtha, a former Marine, say his stance on the war was a significant factor in the Democratic victory. Murtha was endorsed by Pelosi yesterday.

Three Republicans are battling to become their party's leader in the House, since the current House speaker, Representative J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois, has said he would not seek a leadership position.

House Republicans will choose between a veteran leader and two conservative challengers. Representative John Boehner of Ohio, the current majority leader, is facing Representatives Mike Pence of Indiana and Joe Barton of Texas.

The first order of business for the outgoing Congress is to ensure that the government has money to operate in fiscal 2007, which began Oct. 1. If Congress cannot agree on individual spending bills, lawmakers probably will approve a "continuing resolution" that would keep the government running at 2006 levels until the new Congress begins.

The session could extend some popular tax breaks that have expired or are due to expire; approve a US-Vietnam trade pact in advance of Bush's visit to Hanoi on Friday; allow new offshore oil drilling; and pass a nuclear deal with India, a White House priority.

Senate GOP leaders hope to win quick confirmation of Bush's nomination of former CIA chief Robert M. Gates to replace Donald H. Rumsfeld as defense secretary.

The White House wants the Senate to confirm the nomination of John R. Bolton as United Nations ambassador but he faces Democratic opposition, and a key Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, said that he would not support him.

Another Bush priority is legislation that would rewrite domestic wiretap laws to give investigators the power to monitor e-mail and phone communications between suspected terrorists overseas and people in the United States without having to obtain court approval in advance. The House passed such a bill before the election, but the Senate recessed without taking action.

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