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Lame-duck Congress's first task: avoid a government shutdown

Funding for fiscal year 2011 is set to run out Dec. 3. Will emboldened Republicans be willing to shut down government rather than pass a trillion-dollar budget that expands the deficit?

Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (2nd l.) gestures during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington on Nov. 16. He has suggested that Republicans are gearing for a fight with President Obama over the budget.

Alex Brandon/AP

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Of all the unfinished business on Capitol Hill, two issues – taxes and spending – are running up against tough deadlines when a lame-duck Congress returns next week, but the GOP surge at the polls on Nov. 2 is making consensus tougher on both issues.

To date, Congress has passed none of the 12 annual spending bills that keeps federal agencies functioning. Funding for fiscal year 2011 is set to run out on Dec. 3. In past years, the fix has been a single, massive spending bill, often pumped full of member projects derided as pork-barrel spending – a.k.a. earmarks – to grease passage.

But midterm elections changed both the partisan head count and the politics of spending in the lame-duck session as well.

For one, Republicans in the House and Senate say that voters will not tolerate another $1 trillion-plus spending bill loaded with pork and are threatening to block it. Moreover, the swearing in of Sen.-elect Mark Kirk (R) of Illinois on Nov. 29, will give Senate Republicans 42 seats in the lame-duck session, and Democrats will need to find at least two Republican votes to break a filibuster.

“The voters sent a clear message that the administration needs to come toward us,” said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell in a speech before the Federalist Society Friday. “If there’s a message out of this election to the Democrats, it’s certainly not to continue what they are doing."

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