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Lame-Duck Congress Gets Back To Work After Midterm Elections


Here in Washington, a question hangs over the United States capital - what do they do now? Republicans won last week's elections for Congress. They're preparing to take charge of the Senate. They already control the House. Democrats were defeated but maintain some power as the old Congress returns today for a lame-duck session. So what do they do now? We're going to talk this through with NPR congressional reporters Ailsa Chang and Juana Summers. They're both in our studios. Good morning.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Good morning.


INSKEEP: Ailsa, let's start with you. What must get done in this lame-duck session?

CHANG: Well, right now, what must get done is just routine business. And maybe it's a sign of how badly things have gone in Congress that even routine business has been left unresolved here at the end of the year. So, for an example, do you want a tax refund? Do you need a tax refund? Well, that could be in jeopardy if Congress fails to renew some dozens of tax breaks that expired at the end of last year.

INSKEEP: Would my tax refund be messed up even if I'm not claiming one of those deductions?

CHANG: Well, this is what happens - the IRS commissioner has already written a letter to Congress saying that if some certainty isn't provided as to which tax breaks get extended, that will delay the preparation of forms, which will delay filing deadlines, which may delay actually giving people refunds, which would get a lot of people angry.

INSKEEP: Juana Summers, what other business needs to get done?

SUMMERS: Other very basic business, as Ailsa just noted, such as the bill that funds the government every year. There is also the National Defense Authorization Act, the bill that funds the Defense Department's operations. That's another big priority that the House and Senate will have to meet on as well.

INSKEEP: House Speaker John Boehner has been perceived as being pushed around by junior members of the House. Is that going to happen again in 2015?

SUMMERS: That's right. That's a really interesting question. I know a lot of us think that more troops equals more power for House Speaker John Boehner. But there is still likely to be some divisions in this House. And this is something House - the speaker has actually addressed in his first comments after the election at a press conference. He said, sure there are some new members that have made controversial statements. But he thinks that the new freshmen class has really solid members, and that, combined with the tone that he had at this press conference, which was pretty forceful, makes me thinks that he feels like he's in a really good place heading in January.

INSKEEP: Ailsa Chang, what about Mitch McConnell, the man who is expected to be the majority leader, the Republican leader of the Senate?

CHANG: Well, if he wants to see the Republicans retain the majority beyond 2016, he has to be able to prove that his party can be more than just the party of no. That means passing reasonable legislation that they can realistically expect the president to sign. That could mean corporate tax reform, possibly fast-track trade agreements, maybe even sentencing reform. We might even see an overhaul of the NSA's program on collecting phone records. But also, expect Republicans to pass a number of bills that they know very well the president could likely not sign. McConnell's been very specific. He'd like to see a vote on completing the Keystone XL pipeline; that's the oil pipeline that both sides have been feuding over for months and months. He'd also like to see a bill that would redefine full-time work under the Affordable Care Act as 40 hours per week as opposed to 30 hours per week for purposes of the employer mandate - so different ways to chip away at the Affordable Care Act. McConnell has already said that it's not realistic to expect a wholesale repeal of the Affordable Care Act while Obama is still in the White House. But he certainly would like to see specific smaller items under that law get votes in the Senate.

SUMMERS: And that's actually something we're hearing from House Speaker John Boehner, too. He has also vowed a vote on repealing the Affordable Care Act early in 2015. And he said also specific parts of it, including the individual mandate medical device tax, the Independent Payment Advisory Board, or IPAB, and he thinks those will all get votes in this new Congress after January as well.

INSKEEP: Very briefly, what about the Democratic leaders - Nancy Pelosi in the House, Harry Reid in the Senate? Will they remain the Democratic leaders in defeat?

SUMMERS: We do expect to see Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi remain leader but there have been some rumblings and questions about her leadership. Some Democratic aides tell me that there's concerns that this party needs to consider bringing some new blood into leadership ahead of 2016. And so I think that's certainly going to be a thought that she - Steny Hoyer's been in leadership for quite sometime, as well as Democratic leader Jim Clyburn - not expecting to see them go anywhere.

INSKEEP: Do Democrats think they can recapture the Senate in 2016, Ailsa Chang?

CHANG: They could have a really good chance. In 2016, there will be nine Republican-held seats in states that Obama has won once or twice. So Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who will soon become Minority Leader Harry Reid in the new Congress, could very well get a shot at being majority leader again after 2016.

INSKEEP: NPR's Ailsa Chang and Juana Summers, thanks to you both.

CHANG: Thank you.

SUMMERS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang and Juana Summers
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