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US Congress Returns After Election Shake-Up

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., center, on Capitol Hill in Washington, 15 Nov 2010
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., center, on Capitol Hill in Washington, 15 Nov 2010

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U.S. lawmakers returned to work on Monday, after midterm elections that shook the political landscape in favor of Republicans. Members of Congress have a lot of unfinished business to take care of in the remaining weeks of this year, including funding the federal government so it can continue operating, and deciding whether - and how - to extend tax cuts.

The U.S. Congress started its so-called "lame-duck" session - the last chance for lawmakers who were voted out of office or did not run for reelection earlier this month - to shape policy. In January 2011, a new Congress will be sworn in, with a smaller Democratic Party majority in the Senate and a new Republican majority in the House of Representatives.

Senate Majority Leader, Nevada Democrat Harry Reid said Congress is facing a new reality.

"American voters sent us a message two Tuesdays ago," he said. "That message is that they want us to deliver. They want us to work together. Voters did not elect only Republicans, they did not elect only Democrats. And they did not want either party to govern stubbornly, demanding 'their way or the highway.' When the heat of the campaign season cools, our constituents are more interested us in getting things done. They would rather we work with each other, than talk past each other."

Senate Minority Leader, Republican Mitch McConnell said voters made clear they do not want to hear talk about change, they want real change.

The Kentucky senator on Monday announced a reversal of his position on a special kind of spending called "earmarks" - a longtime Washington practice of lawmakers inserting provisions in spending bills to fund home state projects like roads and bridges. McConnell said Republicans no longer will use earmarks.

"And what I have concluded is that on the issue of congressional earmarks, as the leader of my party in the Senate, I have to lead first by example," said McConnell.

Analysts say McConnell's reversal signals a victory for so-called Tea Party Republicans - conservatives and libertarians who are calling for tax cuts and strict limits on government spending.

Congress has not yet passed an authorization bill to fund the federal government for the current fiscal year, and it needs to do so by December 3 to keep government programs running.

One of the first controversial issues up for debate, analysts say, likely will be the tax cuts that were enacted during President George W. Bush's administration and are set to expire this year. Democrats, including President Barack Obama, have said they support extending tax breaks for middle class Americans, while returning the rates for wealthier taxpayers to higher levels.

On foreign policy, President Obama said he feels "reasonably good" about the chances of the Senate approving the New START nuclear arms treaty with Russia. He said the measure has received strong bipartisan support.

Republicans have expressed concerns, however, about limiting U.S. missile defense efforts, and they say America's nuclear arsenal needs to be modernized. The New START treaty would cut U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles by about one-third, but it must be ratified by two-thirds of the Senate.

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