Created by on 11/19/2012 12:00:00 AM

After seven weeks of no activity, there was a burst of energy on Capitol Hill on November 12th as members of Congress returned to Washington for the post-election “lame duck” session. Lawmakers came back to confront a long list of unfinished legislative business, as well as the outcome of Election Day. Although Democrats still do not have a 60 seat supermajority in the Senate, the party gained two seats and will control the chamber 55 – 45 (the two Independents, including Senator-Elect Angus King of Maine, will caucus with the Democrats) when the 113th Congress begins in January. Republicans retained their majority in the House with two races (Florida’s 18th and North Carolina’s 7th district) undecided. The Democratic candidates in those contests are holding on to slim leads, and it appears that the party picked up at least five seats in the lower chamber.
The primary accomplishment of the first week back at work was a meeting at the White House on the afternoon of November 16th between President Obama and the Congressional leadership to begin negotiations on a plan to avert the “fiscal cliff” – the combination of expiring tax breaks and automatic spending cuts that will go into effect if Congress does not act before December 31st. Press reports and comments from the President, House Speaker John Boehner (D-OH), and the Senate leadership following the meeting indicated the discussion was constructive and that there was confidence a compromise could be reached over the next few weeks. Although Congress is in recess for Thanksgiving, the leaders and their aides are expected to work throughout the holiday and meet again with the President during the week of November 26th.
The newfound sense of optimism that was expressed after the November 16th meeting came amid conciliatory statements from both parties. Republicans indicated a willingness to discuss a proposal that included changes in the tax code to produce new revenue, and Democrats agreed to discuss entitlement reform. In a positive development for the research community, President Obama is expected to emphasize that cuts already made in non-defense discretionary spending (NDD) through the Budget Control Act caps must count toward the overall deficit reduction target agreed to in a final deal. Democrats, including Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), have also publicly said that a deal on the fiscal cliff should not include any further budget reductions for the domestic agencies, including the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. New rumors are circulating that a group of Republicans is working quietly behind the scenes to make the case that NDD has already done its part in contributing to deficit reduction. In related news, there is almost unanimous agreement that sequestration is not an effective deficit reduction strategy and that the automatic spending cuts for both defense and non-defense programs should not be implemented.
Negotiations to avoid the fiscal cliff are likely to dominate the legislative agenda for the remainder of the year, leaving a great deal of uncertainty about whether Congress will be able to address other issues during the “lame duck” session. The Appropriations Committees are still in active negotiations to combine the unfinished fiscal year 2013 funding bills into a single omnibus package. Cooperation from the Congressional leadership will be needed in order to finish work on the spending measure. However, Speaker Boehner does not believe the appropriations bills are a high priority given that the existing “continuing resolution” (H J Res 117) remains in effect through the end of March. Lawmakers from rural states want to move forward on the 2012 farm bill that stalled in the House prior to the election. The farm bill would renew the United States Department of Agriculture competitive agricultural research grant program for five more years. Depending on the developments that emerge over the next few weeks, it is possible that one or more of these issues could be included in year-end legislation related to the fiscal cliff. Congress is very likely to be in session until Christmas, although a specific schedule has not been released.    
Preparations for the next session of Congress are underway even as the ending to the 112th Congress remains unsettled. Newly-elected Senators and Representatives attended freshman orientation the week of November 12th. House Republicans held their leadership elections, retaining a familiar group of faces in the top roles. Representative Boehner was re-elected House Speaker and Representative Eric Cantor (R-VA) will continue as the Majority Leader. House Democrats will choose their leaders after Thanksgiving. Representative Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) announced on November 14th that she intends to run for House Minority Leader again, surprising those who thought she would step down from that position. Senate Republicans also held leadership elections. Mitch McConnell (KY) is returning as the Senate Minority Leader, and John Cornyn (TX) was named Minority Whip, replacing Jon Kyl (AZ) who is retiring at the end of the current Congress. Senate Democrats made no changes to their leadership line-up. Harry Reid (NV) will continue as the Senate Majority Leader and Dick Durbin (IL) will be Assistant Majority Leader. The roster of committee chairmanships is expected to be announced in December (see related story in this newsletter), with retirements and Election Day defeats shuffling the line-ups of several panels. In addition, the 2013 legislative calendar is likely to be released soon.