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Lame-duck Congress facing gridlock on core issues

Lawmakers return to the Capitol next week facing a deadline to avoid a federal government shutdown as Democrats show no signs of relenting on priority agenda items despite surging Republican opposition.

Republicans said Democrats continued to pursue their agenda as if the midterm elections, in which the GOP gained control of the House and expanded its ranks in the Senate, did not happen.

Republicans will not have their enhanced numbers until the new Congress convenes in January. But GOP opposition in the Senate will be fortified when Mark Kirk of Illinois is sworn in, probably Monday, leaving Democrats with a diminished majority.

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The prospect is for a standoff on core issues in this lame-duck session, including extension of the tax cuts passed during the George W. Bush administration. Congress could remain in session until days before Christmas.

President Obama expects to meet with congressional leaders from both parties on Tuesday evening to chart a path forward, particularly on the tax cut issue.

“The president is committed to sitting down and dealing openly and honestly with Republican leaders,” Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton said.

Republicans want to extend the tax cuts permanently for all households, including those with incomes greater than $250,000 a year. Democrats have held firm on extending cuts only to those with incomes below that amount, saying the country cannot afford the additional $700-billion cost of tax breaks for the wealthy.

Votes are expected on both scenarios, though neither is expected to pass. Obama has suggested he is willing to compromise.

“He’s going to continue to be open and honest and hope that we can make progress on things that are important to the American people, like extending these tax cuts for the middle class,” Burton said.

Even relatively popular bipartisan measures have run into opposition in the aftermath of the midterm elections.

When Congress returns Monday, the Senate is expected to vote on the long-stalled Food Safety Modernization Act, which has widespread support — but not before considering a list of Republican-led amendments. The act would increase agricultural inspections and require enhanced industry record-keeping.

Among the amendments is a largely unrelated measure to ban all earmarks — spending items that lawmakers direct to specific projects in their home states. Ending earmarks was a GOP campaign theme, but the ban is also supported by some Democrats.

Attention will also focus next week on Obama’s deficit reduction commission, which is due to release a report Wednesday aimed at reducing the deficit and coping with rising Social Security and Medicare costs.

It’s unclear whether the commission can meet its Wednesday deadline to issue a final report. As of last week, members were privately debating proposals in hopes of finding a consensus.

By week’s end, Congress needs to vote to continue funding the federal government because the existing measure expires on Friday. Congress could consider a one- or two-week extension to avoid a shutdown, as Democrats pursue a broader spending bill to keep the government funded through the end of the fiscal year in September.

Other items on a long list are vying for attention during the compressed calendar.

The House is expected to vote early in the week on an annual adjustment for doctors who treat Medicare patients, and it could consider a censure of Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) over ethics violations.

The Senate is expected to hold hearings Thursday and Friday on a Pentagon report on repealing the ban on gays serving openly in the military, with a promised vote on the floor to follow. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid also has promised a vote on the Dream Act, an immigration measure that would provide young people in this country illegally a path to citizenship if they attended college or joined the military.

UCLA student David Cho, a Korean who said that his parents brought him to the U.S. when he was a child and that he is undocumented, is among those pressing Congress to vote. He plans to enlist in the Air Force. “It’s been one of my dreams to don that uniform and serve this country,” he said.

Obama is also pushing Congress to approve a nuclear treaty with Russia, called New START, that has been embraced by NATO allies but faces opposition led by Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz).

Democrats see in the weeks ahead a final opportunity to pass priority legislation before Republicans have an emboldened presence in Washington.

But a spokesman for Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, said voters were not interested in the Democrats’ priorities.

“It’s like the election didn’t happen — if you look at what their priorities are,” spokesman Don Stewart said. “The American people’s priorities are not the Dream Act, ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ repeal and the START treaty. Their priorities are not getting a tax hike — and keeping spending under control.”

lisa.mascaro@latimes.com

Peter Nicholas in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.


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