McConnell seeks clean slate for Republican majority in Senate

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellSunday shows preview: Next steps after Trump upheaval Gun-control supporters plan next steps versus NRA McConnell: Trump needs to act like a 'serious candidate' MORE (Ky.) wants to get all must-pass legislation completed in the lame-duck session, so Senate Republicans would have a clean slate at the start of 2015, if they control the upper chamber.

Senate GOP aides say that’s the message from the leader, who could face opposition from conservative lawmakers who want to block any nonemergency measures in the window between Election Day and the start of the new Congress in January.

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“We keep hearing from the leadership we’re going to clear the decks in the lame duck,” said a senior GOP aide.

Under this scenario, the Senate Republican leadership would prefer to pass an omnibus spending bill or a yearlong stopgap funding measure that would keep the federal government operating until the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.

It could also have implications for a package extending a variety of expired tax provisions. Some House Republicans would like to delay action on the so-called tax extenders package to 2015 in the hope that a Congress under unified GOP control could make some of the fixes permanent.

This, however, would have to be done immediately at the start of the new session if the fixes were to apply to 2014. Tax returns must be filed by mid-April.

House Republicans are seeking to extend some expired provisions, like the credit for business research, indefinitely. 

Aides say the Senate GOP is open to that approach, but it wants to finish off an extenders package before 2015 — and the easiest way to do that could be with the bipartisan measure already passed by the Finance Committee.

The ranking Republicans on committees also hope to pass their legislative priorities in the December session, instead of shoving them into next year.

“That’s the approach we’re taking. We’re trying to get the low-hanging fruit out of here,” said another senior GOP aide.

The biggest question is what to do about legislation funding government. Republicans are divided over whether it should keep federal departments and agencies operating through the end of the calendar year or only until the late winter or early spring.

A short-term funding stopgap bill would give the expected Senate Republican majority a chance to reshape spending priorities mid-year, something GOP lawmakers demanded, after their party captured the House in the 2010 midterm election. 

Conservative lawmakers want a chance to cut federal spending in the spring, but Senate GOP leaders want to avoid a potential standoff that could derail their legislative agenda if they capture the upper chamber.

The government came within hours of shuttering in April 2011 because of an impasse between the Democratic-controlled Senate and the Republican-held House over federal funding for Planned Parenthood and the Environmental Protection Agency's regulation of greenhouse gas emissions.

The clash, however, did yield $33 billion in new spending cuts over the rest of the fiscal year.

“There’s a big split on that,” an aide to a conservative senator said of the internal Republican debate over passing a yearlong omnibus or continuing resolution instead of a short-term stopgap.

If Republicans capture the Senate, which looks more likely, according to nationwide polling data, the leadership wants to use the first few months of the new majority to show the party can govern.

They are rallying around proposals that could attract support from Democrats, such as authorization of the Keystone XL oil pipeline and a repeal of the medical device tax.

Another top priority is passing a budget resolution that could lay the groundwork for tax reform and, possibly, entitlement reform.

Leaders don’t want their agenda to be delayed by fights over business that should have been taken care of in the current Congress.

Don Stewart, a spokesman for McConnell, said the lame duck session needs to be productive because Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) delayed many important pieces of legislation until after the election.

Most of the year was spent on political messaging items with little chance of becoming law, such as a proposed constitutional amendment empowering Congress to strictly regulate campaign fundraising.

“We do have a lot of work left to do,” he said. “There’s work that has to get done, and I assume it will get done because Reid punted on everything.

“We have to fund the government; we have to prevent a tax on the Internet, and we have to take care of our troops,” he added.

The Internet Tax Freedom Act expires on Nov. 1, and Congress still must pass the Department of Defense authorization bill.

Reid has set an ambitious agenda for the post-election session.

He said last month that he wants to pass an omnibus spending package; the defense authorization bill; a package of tax extenders and the Marketplace Fairness Act, a measure that allows states to collect taxes from online retailers.

A bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation in July that combined the Internet Tax Freedom Act, which prevents state and local governments from taxing people for Internet access, and the Marketplace Fairness Act.

Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) said senators will aim to vote on a resolution authorizing military strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), as well.

But some conservative Republicans are balking at the prospect of passing a slew of measures after the election but before the newly elected Congress convenes next year.

Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), two Tea-Party favorites, say they will object to moving quickly on any legislation they deem “non-emergency.”

“If you do call a lame-duck session, we the undersigned will object to any unanimous consent request to in any way advance any non-emergency, substantial, and controversial legislation, nominations, or treaties,” they warned in a letter to Reid last month.

One Senate Republican leadership aide said the question of whether to move an omnibus, yearlong continuing resolution or short-term funding measure would likely be decided by the House GOP, since spending and tax bills originate in the lower chamber.

The aide said the House GOP would also initiate action on the package of tax extenders.

Even so, McConnell and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) coordinate closely, and the House GOP leadership is likely to carefully weigh the preferences of their Senate counterparts.

A House GOP leadership aide said “no decisions have been made” on whether to pass an omnibus or continuing resolution.

Boehner said last month that an authorization for use of force against ISIS should not happen at year’s end.

“Doing this with a whole group of members who are on their way out the door, I don’t think that is the right way to handle this,” he told The New York Times.

— Bernie Becker contributed.