Created by on 12/03/2010


Following their week-long Thanksgiving break, members of Congress returned to Washington and resumed a fresh round of bickering about the still-unsettled agenda for the “lame duck” session. Lawmakers face several looming deadlines on a variety of high profile issues including an extension of tax cuts enacted in 2001 and 2003 (which will expire on December 31st unless Congress takes action), continuation of emergency unemployment benefits, and passage of at least one more “continuing resolution” (CR) to keep government agencies operating until the fiscal year (FY) 2011 appropriations bills are completed. Emerging from a short meeting with President Obama at the White House on November 30th, Democratic and Republican House and Senate leaders expressed a willingness to work together to resolve their differences on taxes, the federal deficit, and other issues. However, the cooperation that was pledged on Tuesday appeared to be in jeopardy on Wednesday when the entire Senate Republican conference sent a letter to Majority Leader Harry Reid (NV) threatening to block action on all legislation until the chamber passes a bill to address the tax cuts and a long term CR to fund the federal agencies in FY 2011.
While the Senate braced for legislative gridlock, the House approved a measure to extend the existing CR (that ends on December 3rd) until December 18th. Passed on a 239 – 178 vote, the revised measure (H J Res 101) would keep federal agencies, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH), funded at FY 2010 levels. It would also provide appropriators with additional time to continue their ongoing discussions about how to finish work on the FY 2011 spending bills. The Senate approved the short-term CR on December 2nd.
In the meantime, the two chambers are pursuing different strategies to keep the government operating beyond December 18th. Senate Appropriations Committee chairman Daniel Inouye (HI) is searching for 60 votes for an omnibus package while the House prepares a CR to fund the federal government at 2010 levels (with some exceptions) through the end of FY 2011 (September 30th). Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (KY) and House Appropriations Committee Chairman (CA) have indicated they oppose an omnibus. Given that the negotiations over FY 2011 funding are continuing, FASEB issued an e-action alert urging researchers to email their Senators and Representative to ask that they take action on an omnibus appropriations measure that includes $32 billion for NIH. To date, the alert has generated more than 8,500 messages to Capitol Hill.       
As Congress struggled to reach consensus on an appropriations strategy, the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform issued its long-awaited report and recommendations for addressing the federal deficit. The final document includes proposals to raise the Social Security retirement age and reduce domestic and defense spending, as well as a mixture of tax increases and cuts. The commission recommends freezing the FY 2012 budget at 2011 levels, enforcing discretionary spending caps, and requiring all federal agencies to identify savings in their annual budget submissions. The call for savings was balanced with a cautionary note that “budget cuts should start gradually so they don’t interfere with the ongoing economic recovery. Growth is essential to restoring fiscal strength and balance.” In addition, the guiding principles and values section states, “We should cut red tape and unproductive government spending that hinders job creation and growth. At the same time, we must invest in education, infrastructure, and high-value research and development to help our economy grow, keep us globally competitive, and make it easier for businesses to create jobs.” The Fiscal Commission is expected to vote on the final recommendations on December 3rd.
Although many lawmakers had hoped for a quick resolution to the “lame duck” session, legislative business is expected to continue for a few more weeks. On December 1st, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (MD) said he and Senator Reid want to adjourn the 111th Congress by December 18th, if not earlier that week. Before heading home, House Republicans are expected to announce who will chair committees in the 112th Congress. Democrats have not yet set a date for selecting ranking member positions on the House committees.