US & Canada

US Congress returns to work for 'lame duck' session

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Media captionThe lame duck session will probably focus on tax cuts and government spending

The US Congress has returned to work for its "lame duck session" between November's congressional elections and the January start of the new Congress.

The term is likely to focus on Bush-era tax cuts, government spending, a ban on openly gay troops in the military and an arms control treaty with Russia.

Lawmakers voted out of office in the mid-term elections will conclude their tenure in Congress this session.

It marks the end of Democratic control of the House of Representatives.

Republicans took back the House and cut into the Democratic Senate majority in the elections earlier this month, hurting President Barack Obama's prospects of getting much through Congress ahead of his 2012 re-election bid.

The lame duck session is traditionally a period for those in Congress to try to complete any action on long-stalled bills.

The session this time around will probably focus on battles over tax cuts, government spending and ratification of a nuclear treaty with Russia, as Congress returns two weeks after the elections.

Lawmakers face a tough deadline for renewing tax cuts passed in 2001 and 2003, under President George W Bush, that are due to expire at the end of this year.

Mr Obama has said he wants to make middle-class reductions permanent but has rejected calls to do the same for the highest earners.

Senior White House adviser David Axelrod said on Sunday that Mr Obama would not support a permanent extension of tax cuts for wealthy Americans.

Republicans have voiced their disapproval of the president's plan.

"Republicans made a pledge to America to permanently stop all of the tax hikes scheduled for 1 January," said Michael Steel, a spokesman for top House Republican John Boehner.

During the lame duck session, those in Congress will also have to pass legislation funding government operations - as lawmakers did not send Mr Obama any of the annual spending measures during the regular session.

Nuclear treaty battle

The US Senate is also poised to face a difficult battle over ratifying a nuclear weapons reduction deal with Russia, called the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (Start).

Under the treaty, both countries must reduce deployed nuclear warheads to no more than 1,550 within seven years - a cut of roughly 30% from a limit set in 2002.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and defence secretary Robert Gates urged those in Senate to authorise the treaty, adding that national security in the US depended on it.

"We will be able to count the number of deployed strategic weapons more accurately, because we will exchange more data on weapons and their movement than in the past," Mrs Clinton and Mr Gates wrote in the Washington Post newspaper.

In an effort to demonstrate that he was reaching out to Republicans after the mid-terms, Mr Obama invited top Democratic and Republican congressional leaders to the White House on 18 November for talks on how to work together.

"We can't afford two years of just squabbling," Mr Obama said, adding that the meeting was not just going to be a "photo-op".

Another possible item of business is a repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" ban on gay people serving openly in the armed forces.

The Pentagon is expected to release a report on 1 December showing it could accommodate a repeal of the measure without adversely affecting combat readiness. The report would lend ammunition to Democrats and Mr Obama, who favour ending the ban.

Many congressmen said they wanted to see the Pentagon review before committing themselves to a repeal, but Senate Republicans blocked a repeal move in September, and may not agree to one during the lame duck session.

Meanwhile, newly-elected members of the House of Representatives, comprising 85 Republicans and nine Democrats, are in Washington for an introductory programme, ahead of their 1 January start date. The Senate is also running its own orientation programme.