WASHINGTON -- The ousted Republican-led Congress returns to the Capitol this week to try one last time to shorten a long legislative to-do list, while the just-elected members will vote for new leaders in races that could signal the direction the parties will take next year.
At minimum, Congress must pass a temporary spending bill to keep the government running until the next Congress takes office. Getting much else accomplished could be difficult.
"Democrats won't allow anything to pass they don't like, and Republicans have little interest in starting the Democratic reign early," said Thomas Mann, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution. "It could be a very short lame-duck session."
As the old Congress wraps up, the freshman lawmakers will arrive. They won't be sworn in until January, but they will meet with President Bush, pick up congressional IDs and learn everything from the proper attire for the House and Senate chambers to the location of the members-only gym. And they will have a say in choosing leaders.
Two House races -- one Democratic and one Republican -- could reveal how the parties will position themselves in the next session.
Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California is poised to become the first female speaker of the House. The choice for House majority leader, the No. 2 slot, is between a moderate and a leading anti-war Democrat.
Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the current minority whip, faces Rep. John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania, whose call for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq made him a favorite of party liberals.
On the other side, three Republicans are battling to become their party's leader in the House, since the current House speaker, Dennis Hastert of Illinois, has said he will not seek a leadership position.
House Republicans will choose between a veteran leader, whom some might want to blame for the party's loss of the majority, and two conservative challengers. Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, the current majority leader, is facing Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana and Rep. Joe L. Barton of Texas.
The first order of business for the lame-duck Congress is to ensure that the government has money to run. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate Democratic leader, has advised current Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican who did not seek re-election, that Democrats would work with the GOP to clear spending bills for fiscal year 2007, which began Oct. 1, if they included "reasonable funding levels."
If Congress cannot finish the individual spending bills, lawmakers are likely to approve a "continuing resolution" that would keep the government operating at 2006 levels until the new Congress begins.
The session could extend some popular tax breaks that have expired or are due to expire, approve a U.S.-Vietnam trade pact in advance of Bush's visit to Hanoi on Friday, allow new offshore oil drilling and pass a nuclear deal with India, a Bush-administration priority.
Senate Republican leaders hope to win quick confirmation of Bush's nomination of former CIA chief Robert M. Gates to replace Donald H. Rumsfeld as defense secretary.
The White House wants the Senate to confirm the nomination of John R. Bolton as United Nations ambassador -- his recess appointment expires when this Congress adjourns -- but he faces Democratic opposition, and last week a key Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, said he would not support him.
Another Bush priority also hangs in the balance: legislation that would rewrite domestic wiretap laws to give investigators the power to monitor e-mail and phone communications between suspected terrorists overseas and people in the United States without having to obtain court approval in advance. The House passed such a bill before the election, but the Senate recessed without taking action.
"We hope that the Democrats would see the utility in having this critical tool in the war on terror," White House counselor Dan Bartlett told Fox News Sunday. Reid told CBS's Face the Nation that "we'll be happy to take a look at it" but would not say whether action would be taken.
Also this week, Democratic Sens. Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin and Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut are expected to introduce a bill to rescind an Oct. 1, 2007, termination date for a special inspector general's office that monitors U.S. expenditures on Iraq reconstruction. "This is a proposal that enjoys broad bipartisan support," said Jim Manley, a Reid spokesman.
The inspector general has produced a series of reports highlighting waste and fraud in the Iraq rebuilding effort. Language that would close the investigative office was quietly included in a military authorization bill, in an apparent effort to prevent further embarrassment for the Pentagon and the administration.
Both parties still hope to hold a separate vote on a bill to extend the research-and-development tax credit, a college-tuition tax break and more than 40 other expiring provisions.
Richard Simon and Joel Havemann write for the Los Angeles Times.