Bears, budgets top Congress agenda

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Bears and budgets top the list as Congress returns today from a seven-week election break to a long list of unfinished business.

Looming large in the lame-duck session is the urgent need for President Barack Obama and Congress to figure out how to avoid the double economic hit of tax increases and automatic spending cuts to defense and domestic programs that kick in after Jan. 1. Those high-stakes negotiations could take weeks and the issue may not be resolved by year’s end.

In the interim, Democrats and Republicans are picking up where they left off on several bills while welcoming the newest members — 12 in the Senate and some 70 in the House — for Congress’ version of freshmen orientation.

The Senate has scheduled an early evening procedural vote today for a sportsmen’s bill that will decide the fate of 41 polar bear carcasses that hunters want to bring home from Canada as big-game trophies.

Hunters killed the bears just before a 2008 ban on polar bear trophy imports took effect, but were not able to bring them home before the Fish and Wildlife Services listed them as a threatened species.

While the nation’s voters endorsed the status quo of divided government — a Democratic president and Senate, a Republican House — Obama cruised to re-election and his emboldened party gained seats in both the House and Senate.

In the new political order, Democrats will hold a 55-45 edge in the Senate if independent Angus King of Maine caucuses with them as expected. Republicans’ advantage in the House narrowed and is likely to stand at 233-201.

The question over the next seven weeks is whether Obama and Congress can agree now or later on how to slash $1.2 trillion from the deficit, raise revenues with possible changes in the tax code and address the entitlement programs of Social Security and Medicare.

They also have to figure out how to stop across-the-board cuts to defense and domestic programs totaling $110 billion next year.

Obama meets with congressional leaders at the White House on Friday. Democrats and Republicans recognize the urgency, but the demands remain unchanged.

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