(CNN) - The Democratic-led Congress that was knocked on its heels by voters November 2 returns for a post-election, lame-duck session Monday with a long list of controversial bills Democrats would like to clear before January when Republicans take control of the House of Representatives and bulk up their numbers in the Senate.
Whether they can pass any of these measures, which include funding the government and extending Bush-era tax cuts, is an open question. If they can't, the bills will die or be punted over to the new Congress
At this point, congressional Democrats, who are still licking their wounds and assessing the fallout from Election Day, are split on key policies, and they're not ready to begin negotiations with Republicans.
"We have a whole bunch of people who want to talk about what happened," said a top Senate Democratic leadership aide who said those discussions will begin in earnest Tuesday when Senate Democrats gather for their weekly policy lunch. "Folks want to have a chance to assess where we are and where we're going" before settling on the nettlesome details of tax and spending levels.
Meanwhile, a senior Senate Republican leadership aide predicted "only the bare minimum" will get passed in the lame-duck session. Republicans, the aide said, will be content to wait for Democrats to sort out what they want to do. After all, the GOP will have more control over any of the issues that are held over to the new Congress.
More clarity, particularly on the issue of taxes, could come Thursday when President Obama plans to meet with bipartisan congressional leaders at the White House. Obama, who has long opposed extending the lower Bush tax rates for wealthier Americans, suggested recently that he's open to compromises on extending, at least temporarily, the tax rates for all Americans regardless of their income level.
New members/same leaders
While Congress has many legislative priorities for the lame-duck session, much of the focus will be on planning for the new Congress.
Beginning Monday, Capitol Hill will be flooded by an especially large class of newly elected members of the House and Senate. Many of them won with support from the Tea Party, which is pushing for dramatic change in the Washington's priorities, especially when it comes to tackling debt and the deficit.
But before those new lawmakers can change Washington, they must sit through an extensive weeklong orientation that will teach them the arcane and complex rules of legislating. They will learn the basics of how to set up their offices, hire staff and what ethics rules they must follow. Then they'll jockey with each other to win key committee assignments and compete in a lottery for the best office space.
One of the first orders of business for new and returning lawmakers is voting for their party leaders. Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio is expected to become the new House speaker, and Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia will become the House majority leader.
House Democrats appear prepared to keep House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California in their top job - minority leader - and a deal struck by Pelosi over the weekend averted a nasty battle for the remaining leadership positions.
But one conservative Democrat, Rep. Heath Shuler of North Carolina, has said he will challenge Pelosi if she does not step aside.
"To be able to put Speaker Pelosi as minority leader is unacceptable for our party, to move our party forward in a moderate direction," Shuler said Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union," though he acknowledged he didn't have enough support to win.
Democrats will meet Wednesday to vote on the slate of candidates, and rank-and-file members will decide then whether they will accept the exact same leadership team that lost them majority control.
The Senate Democratic leadership will stay largely intact, although Democrats will have to pick a new head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee who will face the daunting task of defending as many as 23 seats in the next election - many in purple states that split their support between the two parties - while just nine Republican-held seats will be up.
Senate Republicans will keep their current leadership team. But GOP senators face a tough vote Tuesday on whether to give up earmarks entirely, a policy House Republicans already have in place and are expected to maintain in the new Congress. The idea is popular with many reform-minded senators but opposed by a number of senior members who believe steering funds to home state projects is one of their key prerogatives. Aides said the outcome of the vote is too close to call.
In addition to the expiring Bush tax rates, the reductions in the estate tax are also expiring. That means if Congress does not act, the estate tax rate, which this year is zero, will return next year to 55 percent on assets of more than $1 million, close to where it was before the cuts were adopted in 2001. One bipartisan Senate proposal would cap the tax at 35 percent on assets over $3.5 million, but serious negotiations haven't started on the issue yet, aides from both parties said.
Congress must quickly decide what to do about government funding before a temporary bill that's keeping the government running lapses December 3. House Republicans are pressing for a nearly yearlong extension but want the funding reduced to 2008 levels. A Senate Democratic leadership aide called that "flat-out unacceptable" but said Democratic senators would be open to discussing reduced spending.
Senate Democrats have a number of other bills they would like to pass but acknowledge GOP opposition will make that difficult. Because the lame-duck session will only last a few weeks, Democrats said they can't afford to take up controversial bills that will take a long time to debate.
One example is the repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy that bans openly gay men and lesbians from serving in the armed forces.
The repeal is attached to the annual defense authorization bill, something that typically wins bipartisan support, but often after weeks of floor debate.
Because many Republicans oppose lifting the ban and are unwilling to agree to a time limit for debate, it's unlikely the defense bill will come up this year, aides from both parties said.
Also in the Senate, Democrats said they will try, but doubt they can win approval for, a nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia, the extension of unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless and funding for the settlement of a discrimination suit by black farmers. One bill Senate Democrats hope they can get through is a long-stalled food safety measure that faces a key test vote Wednesday.
House is expected to vote on several bills that are Democratic priorities, although none is expected to become law. They include a measure to give Social Security recipients a $250 payment to make up for not getting a cost-of-living adjustment this year because inflation is so low; a child nutrition bill that Michelle Obama has pushed; and a targeted immigration reform - the "Dream Act" - which would allow children of illegal immigrants to become citizens if they attend college or serve in the U.S. military.
Some less controversial bills will likely get through, the aides said.
They include: a short-term extension of the so-called "doc-fix," so that doctors who treat Medicare patients won't see a reduction in their payments; and adjustments to the Alternative Minimum Tax so that more middle-income families won't get hit with a higher tax bill next year. Several other less controversial expiring tax measures also are expected to be approved.
Americans frequently said they are eager for lawmakers in Washington to compromise with each other. The most interesting aspect of the lame-duck session might not be what bills Congress does or doesn't pass, but how well
Democrats and Republicans work together in the wake of this month's stunning election. Will lawmakers use the lame-duck session to find compromises, or will they use it to highlight their differences and begin to position themselves for the next election?