By Rebekah Metzler
MaineToday Media State House Writer
Plenty of work awaits the lame-duck Congress, from spending bills to a possible extension of Bush-era tax cuts scheduled to expire at year's end.
"We've got our work cut out for us. There's no end to things that need to be done in the next two weeks," U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, said in a recent interview.
Democrats control majorities in both chambers of Congress, but only until the end of the year. Republicans will take over control of the House, and Democrats will have a narrower majority in the Senate when the new Congress meets in January.
That has made Democrats eager to pass as much as their remaining agenda as possible before they lose control -- and Republicans equally motivated to put on the brakes.
Pingree said she hoped Congress would vote to extend unemployment benefits and pass a cost-of-living increase for seniors receiving Social Security. The House failed Thursday to pass a three-month unemployment extension, and it is unclear whether it will take up the measure again.
U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-2nd District, said he hopes the Senate passes legislation concerning Chinese currency manipulation -- a bill the House has already acted on.
"That will have a direct impact on our economy and it will actually help us spur job creation, especially in the manufacturing sector," he said in a recent interview.
The most pressing issue for members from both sides is reaching an agreement on extending at least some tax cuts.
But what exactly can get done on that issue before adjournment is anyone's guess.
U.S. Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both Republicans, insist Congress should move to extend all the tax cuts, including those for the wealthiest. Michaud and Pingree said they support extending the cuts to individuals earning less than $250,000 a year, but not for the upper-income brackets.
"We cannot afford to endanger this fragile economy by imposing higher taxes at this point in time. We just cannot afford it. The nation can't afford it, and certainly our small businesses and individuals cannot afford it," said Snowe in a recent interview.
"Fundamentally, the only way you are going to unleash that capital that's sitting on the sidelines is to give confidence to businesses -- particularly small businesses -- that would be undeniably, directly and adversely affected by allowing these tax rates to expire at the end of this year."
Collins said allowing any taxes to increase while the economy is still weak would be "job killing."
"I've talked to small businesses all over the state, which have given me specific examples of their putting investment plans on hold," she said. "They're holding off on hiring more workers until they know for certain what the tax rates are going to be next year."
Snowe, who did not originally back the tax cuts passed in 2003, said she'd like to see all the cuts extended as long as possible.
Collins said she would like Congress to vote for a two-year extension of all the cuts and believes there is enough support to pass that proposal.
Both say it is imperative the cuts are not allowed to expire.
But Michaud and Pingree both said they are uncomfortable with the $700 billion they say it would cost over the next 10 years to extend the cuts to individuals earning more than $250,000.
"If we're going to be borrowing trillions of dollars for tax cuts for the top 1 or 2 percent, that's wrong," Michaud said. "We have to start focusing our budget in order, and that also looks at tax breaks, as well. That's part of balancing the budget.
"It's not just the spending piece that makes the difference, it's the tax breaks or tax cuts that we do that causes the budget to be out of whack."
Pingree said it was disingenuous for Republicans who campaigned on reducing the deficit to now favor a tax cut for the wealthy without finding a way to offset the cost.
She also responded to the argument made by Snowe and Collins that increasing taxes for the top income brackets would harm small businesses.
"If a business is sitting on capital right now -- and this election is already over -- I have to say they are just downright unpatriotic," she said. "These are wealthy individuals. This isn't a corporate tax rate. And there's only a very limited number of businesses that are affected by this -- I think it's something like 2 percent of the businesses in this country."
Other legislation pending before Congress includes an extension of the pilot project allowing Maine's heaviest trucks to keep using federal highways.
Lifting the pilot project would send heavy trucks off Interstate 95 and on to local roads along the interstate.
Congress has Thanksgiving week off and could potentially be back in session until Christmas.
MaineToday Media State House Writer Rebekah Metzler can be reached at 620-7016 or at: