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Taxes, budget and jobless benefits - Congress at the wire

By Tami Luhby, senior writer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- The lame-duck Congress returns on Monday to a daunting agenda of economic issues.

And lawmakers will try to accomplish in a few weeks what has eluded them all year.

Some deadlines, such as extending unemployment insurance and passing a federal budget, will hit this week. On other matters, such as the Bush tax cuts, lawmakers have until year's end.

Here's their To Do list:

Medicare payments to doctors: The House on Monday is set to take up a measure delaying a 23% cut in federal reimbursements to doctors by one month.

The Medicare payment reduction is scheduled to go into effect Wednesday if lawmakers don't act. Physicians have threatened to drop Medicare patients if their rates are slashed.

Bush tax cuts: On Tuesday, President Obama will meet with congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle to tackle the extension of the Bush tax cuts.

Just about the only thing both parties agree on is preserving the tax cuts for lower- and middle-income families, which is estimated to cost $3 trillion over a decade. At issue is extending them permanently for the high-income earners, which adds $700 billion to the tab.

President Obama and many Democrats have said they want the tax cuts to expire on family income above $250,000. But the GOP contends that raising taxes now on anyone will imperil the still-fragile economy.

Unemployment benefits: It looks increasingly likely that hundreds of thousands of people will start running out of extended unemployment benefits this week.

Lawmakers are expected to let the Nov. 30 deadline to file for federal unemployment insurance pass without extending it. But that doesn't mean it's the end of the road for federal benefits, which last 73 weeks. Congress may take up the measure during December, either as stand-alone legislation or as part of a bigger bill.

The main sticking point is paying to maintain the safety net. The most recent six-month extension cost $34 billion.

Some 2 million people are expected to run out of federal benefits in December if lawmakers don't extend the deadline. Advocates want action taken before deficit-conscious Republicans take over the House in January.

Deficit commission: President Obama's fiscal commission is scheduled to issue a report on how to reduce the nation's long-term on Dec. 1. But it's unlikely the 18-member panel will get the votes required to make official recommendations to Congress.

Earlier this month, the commission's co-chairmen, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, issued their own recommendations, including spending cuts, tax reforms and other ways to reduce the deficit by $4 trillion over the next decade.

Fiscal 2011 budget: Lawmakers are already two months late in enacting the fiscal 2011 budget, though they passed a temporary spending plan that expires on Friday. If they don't act by then, the federal government will shut down.

Congress could finally pass a full-year budget, but that's a long shot. It's more likely that lawmakers will approve another so-called continuing resolution, which maintains funding for federal operations at 2010 levels. The big question is how long the Band-Aid will last.  To top of page

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