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Five fights that could upend the lame duck

Five fights that could upend the lame duck
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Lawmakers returning to Capitol Hill next week will be confronted with a slew of difficult defense and national security issues that they had put off until after the midterm elections.

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Both the House and Senate go back in session on Nov. 12, with a goal of wrapping up the lame-duck session by the week of Dec. 17. That gives lawmakers precious little time to wade through a thicket of national security problems that have sprouted up since they left town in mid-September.

With Republicans set to take complete control in January, and Democrats dealing with a post-election hangover, both sides might be aiming to wrap up the post-election session as quickly as possible.

But several pressing matters could upend those plans, potentially keeping Congress in session through the holidays.

Authority to fight ISIS

President Obama this week said he plans to send lawmakers a resolution for a new authorization of military force (AUMF) against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The announcement was a reversal for the administration, which previously insisted that the authority approved for fighting terrorists after 9/11 was all Obama needed to take on the Islamic group.

Obama’s request was well received by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezBiden must wait weekend for State Department pick Senate presses Biden's pick for secretary of State on Iran, China, Russia and Yemen Year-end deal creates American Latino, women's history museums MORE (D-N.J.), who said his panel would begin the process of getting an AUMF approved in the "days ahead.”

However, Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerCan the GOP break its addiction to show biz? House conservatives plot to oust Liz Cheney Ex-Speaker Boehner after Capitol violence: 'The GOP must awaken' MORE (R-Ohio) had previously said debating the force authorization in the lame-duck session would not be the "right way to handle this."

“The fight will be over where [an AUMF] ends up and how detailed it is,” said Ryan Crotty, fellow and deputy director in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

He predicted the authorization would ultimately end up attached to legislation funding the government.

Funding the military

Lawmakers will be scrambling in the weeks after the election to approve legislation funding the military in fiscal 2015.

Congress has approved a National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for 52 consecutive years, but the Senate is playing catch-up, having failed to bring its version of the defense policy bill, as well as defense spending legislation, to the floor before the election break.

The House passed its drafts of the measures last spring and summer.

Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidSchumer becomes new Senate majority leader Biden faces tall order in uniting polarized nation Senators vet Mayorkas to take lead at DHS MORE (D-Nev.) last year waited until the last minute to bring the defense bill to the floor, angering Republicans who were told there wasn’t enough time left to consider their amendments.

This year could see a repeat of that outcome.

“We’re gonna have an authorization bill,” outgoing Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl LevinCarl Milton LevinMcConnell and Schumer need to make the most of this moment Progressives offer mixed messages on key Biden economic aide Five House Democrats who could join Biden Cabinet MORE (D-Mich.) told reporters in September. But, “I don’t think we’ll have time in the lame duck to bring a bill to the floor that’s totally open.”

Work on the bill could prove more acrimonious than usual if it is folded into a government funding bill, according to Todd Harrison, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

“I’m not so sure we get an omnibus bill passed in the lame duck. I’m much more confident we get the NDAA,” he said, adding that lawmakers often try to “cram things” in an omnibus package that could eventually make “the whole thing unpalatable.”

A potential add-on has already sprung up, with the president asking Congress for $5.6 billion more to fight ISIS as it plans to double the number of troops advising and training Iraqi security forces.

Combating Ebola

The White House last week signaled that it intends to beef up the U.S. response to the deadly Ebola outbreak in Africa, submitting a $6.18 billion funding request to Congress.

In September, Congress approved $88 million in additional funding for the Ebola response. Lawmakers also signed off on shifting $750 million in Pentagon funds to the Ebola effort.

The Pentagon has said it could send up to 4,000 U.S. soldiers to Africa to assist in eradicating the virus. Over 1,000 troops have already been deployed to provide logistical help, train healthcare workers and construct treatment facilities.

The powerful Senate Appropriations Committee is slated to convene next week, starting what could be a contentious fight as lawmakers look for more details about the U.S. effort.

Iran nuclear deal

The United States and other world powers are facing a Nov. 24 deadline for reaching a deal with Iran over its nuclear program.

Lawmakers expressed outrage last month when reports surfaced that Obama might work to ensure that any deal with Iran does not require approval from Congress.

Members of both parties are deeply skeptical of Tehran’s intentions and warn the government there can’t be trusted to follow through on its promises.

Obama stressed at his post-election press conference that he’d “rather have no deal than a bad deal.”

But a nuclear deal with Iran is an enticing prospect for the president, as it could give him a major foreign policy accomplishment in his second term.

If a deal is struck, it could prompt a fierce backlash from Capitol Hill, as some lawmakers have already talked of introducing legislation to impose more sanctions on Iran.

Benghazi hearings

The House Select Committee on Benghazi will likely convene for the second time in December.

The meeting's tone could potentially be far less cordial than the panel’s inaugural hearing in September, when chairman Rep. Trey GowdyTrey GowdyThe Hunter Biden problem won't go away Sunday shows preview: Joe Biden wins the 2020 election Sunday shows preview: Election integrity dominates as Nov. 3 nears MORE (R-S.C.) sought to stress the neutral, fact-finding nature of the mission.  

With the race for the White House now set to get underway, Republicans on the panel might look to use the hearing to go after Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBiden must wait weekend for State Department pick Texas Supreme Court rejects Alex Jones request to toss lawsuits from Sandy Hook parents Paris Agreement: Biden's chance to restore international standing MORE, who was secretary of State at the time of the deadly 2012 attack.

Republicans have repeatedly attacked Clinton’s handling of the episode, with some suggesting it should disqualify her from the presidency in 2016.

While no hearing has been slated yet, Gowdy and ranking member Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), said they wanted to hear back from some of their initial witnesses before the next Congress is sworn in.

“December suits me better than January,” Gowdy said at the time. “I would rather do it sooner rather than later.”