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The Fiscal Cliff Isn't The Only Item On Congress' List


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

Congress gets back to work this week after taking most of the autumn off to campaign. And they're coming back to a big to-do list, which members had put off for most of the election year. Among the major unresolved issues is, of course, the so-called fiscal cliff, the collision of expiring tax cuts and impending spending cuts that could hurt the economic recovery.

But there are a lot of other important items on the agenda, too. So there's a lot going on, and to help us sort through it all we're joined now by NPR's Washington editor, Ron Elving.

Good morning, Ron.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: OK, so I know everyone's obsessing over the fiscal cliff in Washington. But, as we mentioned, there's a lot of other legislative business Congress needs to get through before the end of the year. What else is still on the docket?

ELVING: Rachel, every Congress in the last half century has passed a bill authorizing the nation's military operations, setting policy for the military. This Congress hasn't done that yet, and there's still a filibuster threat against that happening in the Senate. Congress usually renews all the federal farm programs every five years. But this time, that's still stuck in the House where they don't have the votes to pass it.

And there's another bill revamping the Post Office and another one renewing the Violence Against Women Act. And the law called the - oh, you remember this one - Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act...


ELVING: ...big source of controversy throughout the entire war on terror era. Well, that's also up for renewal.

MARTIN: Ok. So big stuff that they still have to grapple with. But how productive are these post-election sessions, anyway? I mean, there's a reason they call these lame-duck sessions, right? I mean, how should we calibrate our expectations?


ELVING: Well, it really varies. Sometimes Congresses barely meet after the election, letting things go into the new Congress that starts in January. And yeah, remember, a lot of these members are now lame ducks, they're retiring or they just got defeated earlier this month. But, you know, they still have full authority through the end of the year. And sometimes the party leaders use the lame-duck session to pass what they can't get done before the election. And we saw that a couple of ago with the tax cut extensions and a number of other bills.

MARTIN: All right, but the elephant in the room is still this fiscal cliff, Ron. What is the state of play right now? Where are the negotiations on this?

ELVING: The negotiations are mostly behind the scenes. We haven't really seen much meeting between leaders of the two parties in the two chambers. Although there was a meeting with the president publicly at mid month.

You know, look. We're looking at a bunch of deadlines here. A decade ago Congress passed these tax cuts, put on an expiration date. We reached that date a while ago, extended the lower rates for all the income groups. And now, the deadline is back and the rates are about to go up; meaning that everyone who pays any federal income tax will be paying more as of January.

And meanwhile, the president of course is insisting that the lower rates for all income up to $250,000 remain, while people who make more money that pay more taxes on the money above $250,000. Republicans want to keep the lower rates for all income, no matter how high. That's the biggest sticking point, everybody's really dug-in on that one. And negotiators are looking for a way around it to keep current rates but get more revenue by reducing deductions for the biggest taxpayers

And then, of course, there are all these spending cuts which, especially on Medicare and the military, hardly anyone really wants to make. And certainly no one wants the huge immediate cuts that come automatically in January in the absence of a deal.

MARTIN: But remind us, why are these cuts automatic? I mean, as you just said, if everyone agrees these cuts are a bad thing, can't they just not happen?

ELVING: They were part of that deal back in August of 2011 that got us out of the debt ceiling crisis. And, by the way, we're closing in on another deadline on the debt ceiling, as well, so that's part of this whole same mix. And the cuts are supposed to come equally from defense and non-defense, which means a drastic reduction in defense on top of what they were already doing. And that's meant to motivate Republicans, and it seems to be working.

MARTIN: OK. Real quickly, Ron. Gridlock in Congress has become a familiar state-of-being here in Washington. Something different about these negotiations now?

ELVING: There's a different message coming from much of the business community. Lots of CEO's from big companies are saying, time to make some kind of a deal - let's get it done. Holding the line on taxes is not as important as moving on. We've just had an election. The Republican hopes for a President Romney, a Republican takeover in the Senate, a bigger majority in the House, that didn't happen. So the strategy of holding out for a better hand of cards didn't work. It's time for everyone to play the cards they have.

MARTIN: OK, we'll see. That's NPR Washington editor, Ron Elving with his perspective.

Thanks so much, Ron.

ELVING: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.