Expect plenty of fireworks when the U.S. Congress meets this week for a post-election session focused largely on the ailing U.S. economy.
With Barack Obama preparing to become the 44th U.S. president on January 20, lawmakers will take another crack at providing fiscal relief to Americans and the U.S. auto industry, and elect leaders for the new Congress set to convene on January 6 with Obama’s Democrats in stronger control.
Lawmakers also will move to expel Republican Ted Stevens from the Senate if a protracted ballot count shows that Alaska voters returned the 84-year-old senator to Washington after his conviction for corruption last month.
In addition, Democrats also will decide what, if any, punishment to impose on Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Democrat turned independent, for actively campaigning for Republican John McCain for president ahead of the November 4 election.
Obama has privately opposed ousting Lieberman from the Senate Democratic conference, saying that would break Obama’s vow to set aside partisanship, a party source said.
It is unclear what Lieberman would do if stripped of a committee chairmanship, as threatened. But as one Democratic Party aide put it, "He’s keeping all his options open," including, apparently, bolting to the Republican Party.
CARMAKERS ON THE LINE
On the economic front, Democrats are working to direct $25 billion in loans to Detroit automakers, who say the action is needed to survive their worst-ever fiscal downturn.
Support, however, is uncertain, especially from Senate Republicans reluctant to legislate yet more money for business rescues. They also are not convinced General Motors Corp, Chrysler LLC and Ford Motor Co are viable with overall industry sales plunging and consumers moving away from American-made gas guzzlers.
Bailout foes suggest Congress amend a separate $25 billion loan program approved in September for automakers to retool factories necessary to produce electric cars and other more fuel-efficient products.
At the same time, Democrats are clamoring to inject at least tens of billions of dollars into the economy to help ease the worst fiscal crisis since The Great Depression.
But with outgoing President George W. Bush and fellow Republicans wanting to give a new $700 billion rescue package for the financial industry more time to kick in, Obama may have to wait until he takes office to sign any additional economic stimulus into law.
Senate leaders swapped open letters on Friday in advance of next week’s showdown.
"The adoption of a robust recovery package should be the top priority," wrote Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, urging Republicans to reconsider apparent plans to block such a measure.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky fired back by complaining that Reid had yet to provide details. "Taxpayers deserve to know if this bailout would increase the national debt and raise their taxes," McConnell wrote.
The Senate is to reconvene on Monday, likely for about a week. House Democrats say they will move quickly to give final approval to any relief measures that win Senate passage.
Lawmakers will elect party leaders for the new Senate and House of Representatives that will convene in January with their biggest Democratic majorities in years. Democrats will also pick committee chairs.
In the November 4 election, Democrats picked up 22 seats in the 435-member House to raise their majority to 257 with a few races yet to be decided. Democrats gained six Senate seats, increasing their majority in the 100-member chamber to 57.
Three razor-close Senate races have not yet been decided. All involve seats now held by Republicans — Stevens in Alaska, Norm Coleman in Minnesota and Saxby Chambliss in Georgia.
A final vote count in the Stevens race may come next week. Minnesota and Georgia are headed for a recount and runoff, respectively, next month.
If Democrats capture all three, they would have a majority big enough, 60, to pass legislation over Republican procedural hurdles. "Possible but unlikely," said Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, head of the Senate Democratic campaign committee.
If Stevens wins, senators promise to move to expel him for his conviction last month of lying on Senate disclosure forms by failing to report more than $250,000 in home improvements and other gifts from an oil executive.
Democrats want to move quickly but Republicans may try to wait until after a Stevens appeal. That could take months.
But South Carolina Republican Sen. Jim DeMint wants to act now. He is pushing for a vote to strip Stevens of committee assignments and oust him from the Senate Republican conference.
"We should clean our own house," a DeMint aide said.