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Spending, war disputes to dog post-election, lame-duck Congress

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[September 20, 2014]  By David Lawder
 WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Congress will face a contentious post-election session in November dominated by a longer-term spending bill and more wrenching questions over President Barack Obama's strategy to defeat Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.

Lawmakers darted home on Thursday after approving stopgap funding to avert a government shutdown and authorizing the arming and training of moderate Syrian rebels. But those measures last only until Dec. 11, so Congress will have to revisit them after the Nov. 4 election.

Some lawmakers from both parties said this week's vote on arming and training Syrian rebels is not enough. They want to revamp the current authorizations to use military force, which date back more than a decade and were focused on hunting down al-Qaeda leaders and ousting Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

"The (authorization) that exists is very stale. It doesn't apply to the circumstance, and I think that's a widely shared view," said Representative Peter Welch, a Vermont Democrat.

Some Republicans want to give Obama more tools beyond air strikes to destroy the militant group, which has taken over large parts of Syria and Iraq, including the use of U.S. combat troops.

"I lean toward giving the president more latitude, and some of my colleagues want to be more restrictive," said Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona.

Senator Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat, this week proposed a new authorization that explicitly forbids the use of U.S. ground forces against Islamic State.

The war powers debate will coincide with efforts by House and Senate appropriators to craft a massive, "omnibus" spending bill for fiscal 2015. Work so far on the 12 normal spending bills - seven passed by the House and none by the Senate - will form the basis of the $1.014 trillion measure.

"We have a more solid base to negotiate from because we've passed appropriations bills, and the Senate hasn't passed any," a House Republican aide said.

Although the overall spending levels are largely unchanged, there will be disagreements over House-passed cuts to housing and transportation programs and Republican-drafted environmental provisions aimed at thwarting new regulations for mine waste and agricultural runoff.

The temporary spending measure passed this week includes funds to battle the Ebola epidemic in West Africa and allow border security agencies to shift funds around to deal with an influx of migrant children from Central America at the Mexican border. Congress will need to address those issues in the spending bill.

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Republicans need to pick up six seats in November to take control of the Senate. If that happens and, as expected, they strengthen their majority in the House, some issues may be delayed until the new year, when they can flex their new political strength.

In the Senate, a Republican victory could prompt Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada to focus the 15-day post-election session on approving as many nominations for federal judges and Cabinet officials as possible in a last gasp for the Democratic majority.

There will be other issues clamoring for attention from lawmakers:

- The federal terrorism risk insurance program created after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks expires on Dec. 31 and needs House approval. The Senate passed an extension by a wide margin, but conservatives have argued for reforms. [ID:nL2N0PS1SP]

- Lawmakers from both parties want to extend about 50 temporary tax breaks worth about $85 billion. Republicans blocked a bill on the so-called "tax extenders" in the Senate earlier this year because of a dispute over amendments.

- Senate Democrats want to curb corporate buyout deals known as "inversions," in which U.S. companies move their tax domiciles overseas to get lower rates. They could possibly add it to the tax extenders package.

- Republicans want to pass a measure to allow faster negotiations for trade deals, which they argue will bolster efforts to secure free trade agreements with Europe and several Asian countries.

(Additional reporting by Emily Stephenson, Patricia Zengerle and Richard Cowan; Editing by John Whitesides and Jonathan Oatis)

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