WASHINGTON — Congress returns this week to a place filled with political intrigue and an unfinished agenda.
The Democrat-controlled House of Representatives will convene for a lame-duck session with plans to consider almost every vital national issue: tax cuts, military policy, a nuclear arms agreement and, as if that's not enough, the entire federal budget.
But the first major order of business for the Democrats will be to decide who's going to lead the party as it shifts to minority status when Republicans take control of the House next year.
What normally would be a routine internal matter had the makings for a political food fight when current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced that she would seek to remain Democratic leader.
With Pelosi seeking the minority leader post, the No. 2 and No. 3 Democrats, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and House Democratic Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., were forced to compete against one another for the whip's job.
But Pelosi stepped in to avert a fight that could have split House Democrats along racial and ideological lines by creating a new No. 3 leadership position over the weekend for Clyburn —the highest-ranking African-American in Congress — that would allow Hoyer to run for whip unopposed.
The whip issue solved, Pelosi can turn her attention to the minority leader's race, a contest she'll likely win, but not without some discomfort. Some Democratic moderates, conservatives, and even some liberal Pelosi loyalists had urged her not to seek a leadership position in the wake of the party's huge losses.
"I'd like to vote for Steny Hoyer," said Rep. Jim Costa, a conservative Democrat from Central California who last week declared victory in a close race in which votes are still being counted, "but I don't know exactly what's going to take place."
Lawmakers from both parties may also defer the major issues on the lame-duck session's agenda into 2011 and to a 112th Congress where Republicans control the House and Democrats rule the Senate.
"I think this session is going to be mostly housekeeping," said Darrell West, director of governance studies at Washington's center-left Brookings Institution.
Democrats will still control both houses of Congress until early January — 255 of the House's 435 seats and 59 of the Senate's 100 seats, though Sen.-elect Mark Kirk, R-Ill., will be sworn in later this month to replace Democrat Roland Burris.
But lawmakers rarely use lame-duck sessions to ram through legislation before they lose power. They are usually too cowed by the election results as they look ahead to the next election.
That may be particularly true in the Senate, where 21 Democrats, two independents who usually vote Democratic and 10 Republicans are up for re-election in 2012.
Democrats, who lost six Senate seats this month, are also waging an intraparty debate about how to proceed in the months ahead.
"If we don't change our approach, we may have more trouble in the future," said Ed Gresser, the president of the moderate Democratic Leadership Council.
But Robert Borosage, president of the liberal Institute for America's Future, warned against interpreting the election as a repudiation of Democratic themes. "Folks are not looking for austerity. They're looking for a period of growth," he said, growth that government can help stimulate.
The lame-duck session, though, is unlikely to tackle such weighty matters, even though unemployment has been stuck at 9.6 percent since August and the opportunities to act will be there. The enemy is time, because complicated issues usually require lengthy debate.
The START nuclear arms agreement, approved in September by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in a bipartisan vote, could come up. But some conservative Republicans have serious reservations.
Most major Bush-era tax cuts expire at the end of the year, and a congressional debate is expected to begin later this month. Indications are that lawmakers could accept a temporary extension, probably for two years, but the issue of whether to include the wealthiest Americans in that extension will be a touchy issue. Obama previously has called for Congress to let the tax cuts expire for those earning more than $250,000 a year, and it's not clear where the White House will end up on the issue.
And though the federal deficit commission is scheduled to issue its final report on Dec. 1, issues such as the future of Social Security and Medicare are expected to be tackled in earnest next year.
Instead, much of Congress' attention will turn to keeping the government funded. Current spending authority ends Dec. 3, and unless Congress acts, nonessential government functions could shut down.
Normally, Congress considers spending in different bills that deal with specific subject areas, like labor, health and human services, education and so on. But none of those bills have been passed, so lawmakers must adopt a stopgap budget to keep government running.
Conservatives could try to stop the stopgap, and it's expected they'll try to enact the kinds of deep spending cuts they promoted during the fall campaign. Some analysts see them even trying to shut down the government for a while.
"If you want to serve notice that you're willing to do it, this would be a good time," said veteran Washington budget analyst Stan Collender. More likely is a freeze on spending until early next year, when the Republican-led House has more say in writing a budget.
More contentious could be the bid to continue certain unemployment benefits that expire on Nov. 30. In July, a deadlocked Congress took seven weeks after benefits expired to extend them. Recipients got benefits retroactively.
Republicans are again expected to insist that benefit costs be offset by spending cuts. Many Democrats will counter that this is an emergency, since national unemployment remains at its highest since the early 1980s.
If the extension is delayed again, the National Employment Law Project estimates that about 2 million people will be denied benefits of about $300 a week.
Those deadline-sensitive tasks are likely to eat up what little time is left in this session, leaving few days for debate on a bill to fund the Defense Department. Usually, the Senate takes three or four weeks to debate defense spending, and it has passed a defense bill for 48 straight years.
But this year's effort has been complicated by a push by Democrats to end the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that bans gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military.
A report on how people in the military feel about lifting the ban is due on Dec. 1, and some senators have said they want to wait for that report before voting.