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Congress faces lame-duck test for 4th straight election year

WASHINGTON -- Seventy-one years after reformers thought they had gotten rid of lame-duck sessions of Congress, lawmakers -- victors and vanquished alike -- will trudge back to Washington in mid-November to tackle problems they could not resolve before Tuesday's elections.

Lawmakers hate these postelection sessions, which often tend to be quarrelsome and unproductive. The 20th Amendment to the Constitution, approved in 1933, changed the presidential inauguration and congressional calendars, eliminating the necessity for postelection sessions, which reformers of the era had come to regard as opportunities for corruption. But the amendment did not rule these sessions out. Now, after several decades of avoiding them as often as not, Congress is back in a lame-duck rut.

This is the fourth election year in a row that they have returned to take up unfinished business after the balloting is over -- a habit that may be hard to shake in the future, especially if Congress remains closely divided. Many of the recent postelection sessions reflected the lack of a commanding majorities in the two houses as well as mounting partisanship, said James A. Thurber, an American University political scientist.

In 1982, House Speaker ''Tip" O'Neill, Democrat of Massachusetts, became so disgusted by a particularly long, testy, and ineffectual month of postelection lawmaking that he vowed he would never call another lame-duck session, said Donald Ritchie, the associate Senate historian. O'Neill kept his promise, Ritchie said.

During the 1982 session, senators were no less appalled. Many of them and their staffers donned little yellow lapel pins: the rear ends of ducks, their tails held high as if in mock defiance.

But, by 1994, six years after O'Neill retired, the practice had returned. With the exception of 1996, Congress has returned after elections in every succeeding year.

''It seems we're going to 12 months a year, 24/7, a round-the-clock Congress," lamented John Feehery, spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Republican of Illinois.

The agenda for this year's session, which begins Nov. 16 and is supposed to last no more than a week, is not simple: funding the domestic activities of government, raising the national debt ceiling, and, possibly, enacting a compromise on reorganization of the nation's intelligence operations. Breakthroughs on other bills, such as energy and highways, are possible but not expected.

Before its preelection recess, Congress finished only four of its 13 regular spending bills for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1 (covering military operations and construction, homeland security, and the District of Columbia).

During the postelection session, Republican leaders hope to roll most of the rest of the domestic appropriations into one bill, though some of the most contentious measures could be put off until next year. Meanwhile, funding covered by these bills would continue at last year's levels.

The debt-ceiling increase is needed because the government hit its $7.4 trillion borrowing limit in mid-October, forcing it to delay a federal employees' pension contribution until the legislation is passed. The House included a $690 billion increase in its version of the fiscal 2005 budget, but the Senate did not act on the budget. Lawmakers, especially House Republicans, were reluctant to cast votes on a separate bill to sanction a debt increase before the elections, fearing a voter backlash. Now time is running out.

There is no guarantee that the bill to reorganize intelligence, one of the most important measures of the year, will even be ready for the lame-duck session. Some lawmakers, joined by leaders of the Sept. 11 commission, worry that momentum for far-reaching change may stall after the elections.

Even the derivation of the term ''lame duck" conveys a sense of failure. According to New York Times columnist and language specialist William Safire, the term, imported from Britain in the 18th century, applied originally to bankrupt businessmen. By the 1830s, Safire said, it was applied to politically bankrupt politicians. Ducks have a favored position in American slang, as in ''dead ducks" and ''sitting ducks."

In the seven decades since approval of the 20th Amendment, Congress has held 14 lame-duck sessions, not counting this year's. They were regularly convened during World War II and again during the Korean War. But there were long periods during peacetime when Congress stayed home after elections, including the second half of the 1950s, all of the 1960s, most of the 1970s, and the late 1980s.

But in 1994, Congress reconvened to consider trade legislation and, except for 1996, has been gathering after elections ever since, often because of delay in passing spending bills.

Postelection sessions are not always uneventful. In a listing of post-1933 lame-duck sessions, the Senate historian's office noted that Senator Joseph McCarthy, Republican of Wisconsin, was censured by the Senate at a postelection session in 1954, and President Clinton was impeached by the House after the 1998 elections. The Senate later acquitted him.

The 2002 lame-duck session resulted in final passage of legislation to create the Department of Homeland Security, set up the Sept. 11 commission, and help insurers cover claims from any future terrorist attacks.

As for prospects of accomplishment this year, AU's Thurber figures that major shifts in the congressional lineup on Election Day could add to the incentive for further delay. The side that makes gains may prefer to wait until new members are seated, he said. Still, Thurber said, the backup of spending bills offers ''plenty of opportunity for mischief."

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