Lame Duck Congress Postponed

american u.s. flag congress capitol building hill
AP
House Republican leaders have decided to postpone until after Thanksgiving the lame-duck session of Congress that was set to convene on Tuesday, citing the uncertainty in the political landscape following the controversial presidential election. The Senate will follow suit.

The first Congressional order of business was to to conclude a budget deal with President Clinton. House Republican leaders said they were set to vote later Monday on a stopgap measure to fund the government through Dec. 5. The government has operated without a budget since Oct. 1. They said that would give lawmakers time to regroup after elections that left Republicans with even slimmer majorities in both chambers and left the next president in doubt.

"We're going to bump the session now until Dec. 5," Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota said. "The feeling was there was just too much uncertainty swirling around both Washington and the campaigns to make the session productive."

President Clinton has agreed to sign the legislation, the White House said.

"We reached out to the Republicans because we were ready to get down to work. But it's clear, due to the preoccupation that exists over the election, that they're not ready to do that work this week," said White House budget office spokeswoman Linda Ricci. "So in light of that, we agreed to the date of December 5."

Congress was to convene this week in the 13th post-election session in U.S. history to try to wrap up the $1.8 trillion federal budget before adjourning for the year. But top Republicans said that seemed futile until it was known whether Clinton's successor would be Republican George W. Bush or Democrat Al Gore.

"I think we need to know a little more about what the world we're going to live in looks like," said Rep. Roy Blunt,R-Missouri, chief deputy House whip. "Knowing what is going to happen next year is going to be helpful in coming to a conclusion this year."

Nobody knows what to expect when a lame-duck Congress returns to Capitol Hill, but the session that was to have begun Tuesday might have been especially complicated by anxiety over who will emerge from the presidential election confusion.

There remains also a handful of too-close-to-call congressional races across the country that have yet to be settled.

Republicans are secure in the knowledge that they have retained control of the House of Representatives and the Senate. But they have little incentive to compromise with the outgoing Clinton administration over the five outstanding budget bills, which the president has either vetoed or threatened to veto.

Wrangling over the budget, which was supposed to be completed by the Oct. 1 start of the new fiscal year, was bogged down in acrimony when Congress adjourned last week.

If the Republicans' hand is strengthened by Texas Gov. George W. Bush's winning the White House, they are expected to try to curb spending oPresident Clinton's priorities and resolutely block his other initiatives in the outstanding budget bills.

Democrats are banking on a stronger bargaining position if Vice President Al Gore squeaks past Bush in the Florida vote recount to win the presidency.

Either way, the post-election congressional session - the first since Mr. Clinton's impeachment in 1998 and only the 13th in history - should provide a glimpse of how the next Congress will operate.

Although several House races and one Senate race are still undecided, Republicans now have a nine-seat lead in the 435-member House, and there will be either a 50-50 tie in the Senate or a 51-49 Republican majority.

Most political analysts believe such paper-thin margins of power are a recipe for gridlock and stalemate.

Others are hoping the lame-duck session will signal a new mood of bipartisan cooperation, which will be essential if lawmakers intend to pass meaningful legislation.

Both Republicans and Democrats have indicated a willingness to rise above the partisan bickering that has characterized Congress over the past few years.

GOP House Speaker Dennis Hastert and House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt, who have a tense relationship and had not met since June, broke the ice last week in a recent phone conversation.

"I told him we needed to try to work better together and I would try to make that happen," Gephardt said. "And he seemed positive about it."

On CBS News' Face The Nation on Sunday, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle said that there needs to be "real bipartisanship."

"We need to see inclusion, we need to see a power-sharing arrangement between Republicans and Democrats," the South Dakota Democrat told CBS News Chief Washington Correspondent Bob Schieffer. "I think we need to start on that right away. We don't have to start on the next Congress. Let's do it in the lame duck."

Speaking on Fox News Sunday, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott said that while the atmosphere "is just kind of stunned" in Congress, lawmakers realize "we will have to think innovatively" to keep the nation's legislative agenda on track.

"Attitudes may change," the Mississippi Republican said. "Everybody thinks there's going to be gloom and doom" given the contested presidential election, but "people may actually try harder."

Lott said it's possible lawmakers will have to set aside issues on which they can't come to an agreement, and pass what they can. He said he hopes to find common ground on issues such as education, health care and taxes.

Budget reconciliation negotiations during the lame-duck session will center on disputes over education, immigration, and worker protection issues, which are holding up completion of the five remaining spending bills.

The House must also pass proposed legislation to reform the Foreign Sales Corporation (FSC) program, which grans billions of dollars a year in tax breaks to U.S. exporters. The World Trade Organization has ruled that the program amounts to an illegal subsidy.

The Senate has already passed the FSC reform measure, but the European Union said Friday it would ask the WTO for authorization to impose sanctions on U.S. goods if the proposed legislation is not also approved by the House by Nov. 17.

Although White House budget negotiators are expected to meet with congressional leaders, the post-election session will be further complicated by Clinton's absence this week on an eight-day trip to Brunei and Vietnam.

A current temporary funding measure to keep the government operating runs out on Nov. 14, and President Clinton will have to approve further funding measures to keep the government running after that date.