The abbreviated September session — expected to last no longer than this week and next — leaves a huge pile of business for a lame duck session.
Topping the list is the expiration of the full menu of President George W. Bush-era tax cuts on Dec. 31. The resulting tax increases, when combined with more than $100 billion in automatic across-the-board spending cuts set to take effect at the same time, have become known as the fiscal cliff. Economists warn that unless Congress acts, the one-two austerity punch would send the fragile economy back into recession.
The automatic cuts are punishment for the inability of last year's deficit reduction "supercommittee" to strike a bargain to cut 10-year deficits by at least $1.2 trillion as promised by last summer's debt and budget pact. The Bush tax cuts were originally set to expire at the end of 2010 but were renewed two years ago. President Barack Obama promises to raise the top tax rate on upper bracket earners back to the Clinton-era level of 39.6 percent, up from 35 percent now.
There's no certainty that Congress will handle the issue in the lame duck session, especially if Mitt Romney retakes the White House for Republicans. He's said lawmakers should wait until he's in office before reaching a final solution on the so-called fiscal cliff.
Other pressing issues for the lame-duck session include averting an almost 30 percent cut in physicians' Medicare fees, the food and farm bill, passing the annual Pentagon policy bill, a Russia free trade bill and legislation to reform the Postal Service, which is now losing $25 million a day. Congressional inaction now would mean the Postal Service will default on a $5.5 billion payment into its retiree health care fund that's due at the end of the month.
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