When Congress began its lame-duck session, it had a hearty portion heaped on its plate. Now as the final days wind down, the lawmakers have hardly touched a morsel, as both houses strain to finish up in time for Christmas.
Most of the tough decisions, on jobs bills, the MX missile, and a pay raise for members of Congress, are still ahead. And they must be made before Congress can pass a stopgap funding bill by midnight Friday. Unless a bill wins approval , at that hour the federal government will run out of money and will have to shut down.
With the ranks of the unemployed growing into the 12 millions, jobs proposals make up the biggest share of unfinished business. Democrats, flexing their muscles in the House, have passed a $5.4 billion measure that they claim would spur some 450,000 jobs. The money would go for projects ranging from sewage treatment to repairing veterans hospitals and providing day care for working parents.
The ''emergency jobs'' program now faces an unfriendly Senate, which has already turned down a similar proposal from Democrats in the upper chamber.
''I don't see any future for it this year,'' says Senate majority whip Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska. ''It's good politics. It makes us look like Scrooges just before Christmas,'' adds the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, but he charges that the Democratic proposal is ''no answer to the current problem'' because it would increase government spending.
Some parts of the House-passed program could become law, since the proposal is attached to the stopgap funding bill that keeps the government operating after Friday. But the White House is sending veto signals.
Rep. Silvio O. Conte (R) of Massachusetts delivered the threat, quoting the President as saying that even if it is Friday night and ''the government comes to a standstill, I will not sign a continuing resolution if it has a jobs bill in it.''
Democrats are hopeful that Mr. Reagan may yet have to swallow some of their jobs proposals, but a veto would be hard to override, especially since the House passed its version of the stopgap funding bill by only a four-vote margin.
Even the one proposal that had bipartisan support has yet to be enacted. The plan, which would raise the gasoline tax by 5 cents a gallon, has the blessing of both the President and Democratic House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr., but has run into a Senate filibuster. The proposal is said to create 320,000 jobs on highway and mass transit projects.
The Republican Senate leadership remains confident that the gas tax bill will win passage, but not without heavy pressure from majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R) of Tennessee, as well as calls from the White House to conservative Republicans who are blocking it.
Also slowing down work is the decision on the MX missile. After a resounding defeat in the House last week, the missile backers, including Senator Stevens, are fighting to reinstate $988 million in production money in the Senate. Proponents of the MX are pushing for a compromise that would restore the construction money, but require that both houses agree to a basing plan for the missile before it can be spent.
Like the jobs proposal, the MX money would be part of the stopgap ''continuing resolution'' that would fund the federal government between next Friday and March 15 of next year.
Speaker O'Neill has cast doubts that an MX compromise would win on his side of the Capitol. There is some speculation on an agreement that would give the President the MX if he agreed to part of the Democratic jobs program. Sources on Capitol Hill said no such agreement exists, however.
''I will not permit the MX to be traded off for a jobs bill,'' vows Stevens, appropriations defense subcommittee chairman.
Finally, Congress must decide whether to give themselves and high-ranking government workers a 15 percent raise.
Members of both Houses now are paid $60,663 a year, and they have not given themselves a raise since 1977. In the House this week a bipartisan effort, buoyed by support from the AFL-CIO, the public-interest lobby Common Cause, and newspaper editorials, took the plunge. They approved a measure, sponsored by Rep. Vic Fazio (D) of California.
Supporters of the measure called it a vote for ''good government,'' since it would allow members to rely on government salaries rather than speaking fees from outside groups and special interests. The pay raise is given little chance of surviving a vote in the Senate, where it does not have bipartisan support. Senators have shown little interest in raising their pay because they are more in demand as speakers.