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7 key money decisions facing lame-duck Congress

By Jeanne Sahadi, senior writer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- No matter what happens on Tuesday, Congress will return to Capitol Hill on Nov. 15 for a lame-duck session marked by a long roster of unfinished business.

And most of the agenda has a direct bearing on Americans' wallets.

But just how much lawmakers will accomplish in the few weeks before the Christmas recess is anyone's guess. It's possible, political analysts say, that finalizing some key legislative items will be left to the next Congress convening in January.

Here's a look at just seven major issues on legislators' end-of-year to-do list.

Bush tax cuts: Democrats and Republicans are both on-board with extending the Bush tax cuts set to expire on Dec. 31. But there is still disagreement over just who they should be extended for.

Republicans want to extend them for everyone. President Obama wants to extend them for everyone on income up to $250,000 for married couples filing jointly ($200,000 for single filers). For taxpayers who make more than those amounts, their top two tax rates would increase as would their investment tax rates.

But in recent weeks many Democrats have indicated they would like to see a higher income threshold, such as $500,000.

Once they figure out the "who," lawmakers will have to agree on just how long the extensions will be. The smart money is on one year, two at the outside. It is still possible, however, they could opt for a permanent extension at least for the middle class.

If lawmakers don't reach consensus by New Year's, they are likely to do so in early 2011 and make the extension retroactive to Jan. 1.

Estate tax: Incredibly, after unexpectedly letting the estate tax lapse for a year, lawmakers still have not resolved their differences over just how far-reaching the tax should be.

But one thing is clear: Republicans and most Democrats don't want it to return next year at the levels set under current law.

If lawmakers don't get their act together, come Jan. 1, no more than $1 million of a person's estate would be exempt from the estate tax. That's well below the $3.5 million exemption in place last year. And the top estate tax rate would increase to 55%, up from 45% in 2009.

If Congress does manage to reach consensus, the exemption level is most likely to fall between $3.5 million and $5 million, while the top rate will be set somewhere between 35% and 45%.

AMT patch: If Congress doesn't act, roughly 27 million taxpayers will be hit with the Alternative Minimum Tax when they file their 2010 returns in the first few months of next year, according to Tax Policy Center estimates.

Lawmakers have enacted annual AMT "patches" since 2004. But the patch, which costs about $70 billion a year, has never been paid for.

And while the AMT is universally disliked, it's unlikely lawmakers will get rid of it entirely since its revenue potential is large and often included in federal budget projections. So it makes future deficits look smaller than they are otherwise likely to be.

Tax extenders: Passage of a bipartisan-supported package of tax breaks that regularly gets extended has been held up repeatedly this year.

The legislation includes a host of tax breaks, such as a research and development credit and the option to deduct one's state and local sales taxes on the federal tax return.

It's possible that the extenders package will be included in a mega-tax bill that incorporates the Bush tax cut extensions, the AMT patch and new estate tax parameters.

But as with much tax legislation, there would be fights over whether such a bill needs to be paid for and, if so, where to raise other revenue or cut spending to do so.

Unemployment benefits extension: On Nov. 30, a program that allows jobless workers to file for extended federal unemployment benefits expires. Under that program, jobless workers have been able to qualify for up to 99 weeks of benefits.

Unless Congress acts, roughly 2 million jobless workers will lose their federal unemployment benefits in December, according to estimates from the National Employment Law Project.

Over the past year, lawmakers have debated whether such extensions should be paid for or if they should be deemed emergency spending and added to the deficit.

As a form a economic stimulus, unemployment benefits are thought to have a high "bang for the buck" since jobless workers -- already hard up for cash -- are very likely to spend their benefit dollars into the economy quickly.

Medicare 'doc' fix extension: Come December, the Medicare reimbursement rate for physicians will be cut by 21% and by 1% to 6% in future years if Congress doesn't implement a so-called "doc fix" to stave off the rate cut.

Lawmakers have implemented the "doc fix" 10 times in the past eight years, four of them this year alone.

It would be expensive to implement a permanent fix or even a five-year fix. But practically, there is concern that physicians will stop serving Medicare patients if their fees are cut so drastically.

Critics of the reimbursement rate say it should be overhauled to better reflect the true cost of care.

2011 budget: It's lights out for Uncle Sam after Dec. 3 if lawmakers don't do one of two things.

Lawmakers must pass another band-aid measure to keep the government funded temporarily or actually pass the remaining spending bills slated for fiscal year 2011, which began on Oct. 1.

A government shutdown is far from likely. Indeed, it's not unusual that Congress would go several months into a new fiscal year without a real budget. Tardy federal budgets have been par for the course for most of the past 35 years. But just because it's typical doesn't mean it's right.

"It has implications for good government. Civil servants can't do their work very efficiently. It's hard to do rational planning," said former Congressional Budget Director Rudolph Penner. To top of page

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