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Four things to watch during the lame duck Congress

Congress senate house capitol building
Congress senate house capitol building CBS

Now that the elections are over, Congress returns to Washington today for the first time since September and lawmakers are facing a long to-do list that includes preventing the American economy from falling into a tailspin. But the "fiscal cliff" is just one of several items of unfinished business. Below, a list of the things to watch before the 112th Congress recesses for the year:

Fiscal Cliff:

"Fiscal cliff" is such common terminology these days that it could receive entry into Webster's Dictionary, and it's a term that's not likely to go away until Congress averts the anticipated economic devastation. The pressing issues are a combination of tax cuts set to expire on December 31 and automatic budget cuts to go into effect on January 1. The combined actions are estimated to cost taxpayers $500 billion next year alone.

With Congress back in town and President Obama back in Washington for his first full week after his reelection, the first high-level meeting between the executive and legislative branches is scheduled for Friday at the White House. The meeting between the president and Congressional leaders will launch formal discussions on how to move forward.

The president will also host a series of additional meetings this week. One will be with progressive and labor leaders on Tuesday, including AFL-CIO head Richard Trumka and Justin Ruben of the liberal grassroots organizing group MoveOn. Wednesday Mr. Obama will huddle with leaders corporate leaders, including CEOs of Aetna, Xerox, Walmart, Chevron and General Electric. 

Central to the debate as Mr. Obama campaigned, and reinforced since his reelection, that families making more than $250,000 should pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes. Republicans have long opposed raising taxes but recent statements by House Speaker John Boehner and other Republicans could mean some movement is possible.

Tax cuts set to expire at the end of the year include the Bush-era tax rates that reduced the tax rate for all earners; the Alternative Minimum Tax which is an additional tax to ensure the wealthy paid taxes but is likely to hit millions of middle class taxpayers because of inflation; the payroll tax, which would also impact middle class earners; and the Medicare reimbursement rate for doctors who would see a 27 percent reduction in reimbursements for seeing Medicare patients.

The other element of the "fiscal cliff is the so-called sequester. The automatic, across-the-board spending cuts would reduce government spending by about $100 billion next year. Republicans are protesting cuts to defense programs while Democrats decry cuts to social programs. (Retirement programs Social Security and Medicare are not included in cuts.)


Now that Congress is back in town, lawmakers are able to act on weeks of demands inquiring about the September 11 attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi that killed four Americans. A timeline of what agencies knew and what response was taken is the subject that several committees will address during closed hearings and meetings over the next four days. Top-ranking members of the State Department, the CIA, the FBI and the Office of National Intelligence will testify.

The sudden resignation of CIA Director David Petraeus due to an extramarital affair has thrown a wrench in the investigation. He was supposed to testify on the CIA's response to the attack this week, but acting director Mike Morell will take his place, causing some members of Congress to protest. "I don't see how in the world you can find out what happened in Benghazi before, during, and after the attack if General Petraeus doesn't testify," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said on "Face the Nation" Sunday.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif, who leads the Senate Intelligence Committee, said she has questions for Petraeus and might call him in to testify despite his departure from the intelligence agency.

The only public hearing is set for Thursday, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was asked to testify before the House Foreign Affairs Committee Thursday, but she will not attend as she will be traveling overseas.

Freshman orientation

While the 112th Congress returns to complete unfinished business, newly elected members will also be traversing the halls of Congress this week for orientation. Members of the freshman class, which includes about 80 new members, will navigate their way through the winding corridors and receive a thick stack of House rules and procedures.

In the Senate, Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., will meet with the three incoming freshman senators. The day might be bittersweet for the Republican winners - Nebraska's Deb Fischer, Arizona's Jeff Flake and Texas' Ted Cruz - as Republicans worked to reclaim the majority. Instead, the Republicans lost two seats on Election Day, shrinking their ranks to 45.

Also this week, Freshman House Republicans, along with their returning counterparts, will choose their leadership for the 113th Congress. House Speaker John Boehner is expected to maintain the top role while there could be shuffling in the lower ranks of leadership. Leadership elections for the Democratic caucus, however, won't take place until the week after Thanksgiving. Despite her ability to raise large sums of money for the Democratic Party, there has been speculation about Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's future in the Democrats' top spot after the party picked up only a few seats this election but fell far short of winning back the majority.

Pelosi indicated that she will announce her decision whether to run for Democratic leader to her colleagues Wednesday, Roll Call newspaper reported Monday.

"When I see my caucus, I will discuss it with them in the beginning of this week rather than discuss it with rumor in Washington," Pelosi said Wednesday in San Francisco.

The kitchen sink:

While much focus around Congress' return has been around the "fiscal cliff" and Benghazi, Congress faces a whole host of unfinished business.

The farm bill, which sets agriculture policy and funds the food stamp program, expired Sept. 30. Its expiration hit farmers immediately, especially dairy farmers who have not received their supplemental payments. If Congress doesn't act by January 1, the cost of milk is expected to skyrocket and dairy farmers would have to comply with decades-old regulations that don't conform to the modern industry. As for crop farmers, they have been in limbo, unsure of what sort of subsidies and priorities Congress will set for next year. The Senate passed a bill but the House has not. Analysts say a one-year extension is possible during the lame duck session but a full-fledged five-year reauthorization is unlikely.

The U.S. Postal Service is another area in need of Congress' attention. The broke quasi-government agency is not government funded but lacks autonomy to make much needed changes in service and pension payments as it's constrained by the heavy hand of Congress. The service has been unable to meet $1.1 billion in payments for future retirees' pensions and is asking Congress to act. The Senate passed a bill but the House has yet to act over wrangling over the high cost of the food stamp program.

Congress also faces deadlines to extend the post-9/11 surveillance bill, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, funding for the intelligence community and a bill to authorize defense spending and programs.