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What's next Congress?

US CongressBy Camille Elhassani

The US Congress is back to work in Washington for the lame-duck session meant to finish the last bits of legislative business before handing the gavel over to the new Congress in January.

Lame-duck refers to legislators who lost in the midterm elections two weeks ago but come back for a few weeks to complete the session (and pack up their office).

Democrats lost more than 60 seats in the House of Representatives two weeks ago and control of the lower chamber.

They also lost six seats in the Senate. Whatever this Congress can't manage to vote on dies or gets put off until next year.

So Nancy Pelosi, in her last weeks as speaker of the House and Harry Reid, Senate majority leader, will come up with a legislative agenda to round out the year.

Members of the Democratic and Republican caucuses are also picking new party leaders this week (or in this case anointing old ones to new positions).

Democratic and Republican leaders will meet with President Barack Obama later this week. The "new class" is also in DC, going through freshman orientation and figuring out how to navigate Capitol Hill.

Here are some of the possible Congressional action items:

Even though the current Congress was the most productive in years, they still didn't manage to pass any spending bills. So they've got to pass stop-gap funding to keep the government running.

While Americans said unemployment was their top issue when they voted earlier this month, jobless benefits for some of the 15-million Americans out of work will expire at the end of this month unless Congress acts.

Will Republicans, who feel the election vindicated their ideas of deficit reduction and tax cuts, see the need to extend a big government programme to help those out of work?

Plus there's the Bush tax cuts which will expire at the end of the year unless Congress votes to partly or fully extended them.

This has been a major disagreement between Democrats and Republicans for months. Democrats say the rich don't need a tax cut while Republicans say the cuts will help small businesses add jobs to the economy.

The Senate also may consider the strategic nuclear arms treaty with Russia. The treaty, known as START, would reduce the number of nuclear warheads and delivery systems.

After his recent meeting with Dmitry Medvedv, his Russian counterpart, Barack Obama, the US president, said passing the treaty is a "top priority".

But that will require eight Republicans to vote for it. Their leadership says they'll support it only if the US nuclear arsenal is modernised.

If the Senate doesn't act this year and the treaty gets punted to the next Congress, it will be even harder for Obama to get it ratified because there will be more recalcitrant Republicans in Congress.

Another possible action item for this Congress is the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell", the policy that prevents homosexuals from openly serving in the US military.

Now it's tied to the defence authorisation bill. Republicans say they want to wait for a Pentagon study due out on December 1 to make a decision.

Time is of the essence. Congress is in session this week. Next week they go on vacation for Thanksgiving.

Then they come back for the final flurry of activity. So there isn't time to debate every pressing matter, meaning the Democratic leadership has to prioritise.

Whatever they decide will have an impact on what happens in January, both in terms of legislative agenda and tone in Washington.

Members of Congress are keenly aware that the US public was not satisfied with the progress made over the last two years and voted for change.

A lame-duck session where both sides engage in constructive debate might mean less partisanship next year.

But as Republicans and Democrats reset the battlefield for the new Congress, it's more likely they'll be facing two years of partisan wrangling and antagonism.

Camille Elhassani is Al Jazeera English's Senior White House Producer.

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