The lame duck session of the 112th Congress opened this week with cautious optimism, tempered by a lingering doubt, about how much substantive work can be accomplished before the end of the year.

With the prospect of the “fiscal cliff” looming and a myriad of issues seeking agenda time, Congress inched forward.  The House and Senate held orientation sessions for their newly elected Members and Senators and elected most congressional leaders for the 113th Congress, which will convene in January.

The House Republican caucus re-elected its top three leaders:  Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) will remain Speaker of the House (the full House will formally vote when the 113th Congress convenes); Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) will continue as House Majority Leader; and Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) will stay on as House Majority Whip (chiefly responsible for lining up votes on legislation).  The House Republican Conference will be led, for the first time, by three women Members:  Rep. McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) will chair the Conference; Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R-KS) will be vice-chair; and Rep. Virginia Fox (R-NC) will be Conference secretary.

House Democrats will elect their leaders on November 29th.  After months of speculation that she might step down, current House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) announced she will seek re-election. 

Senate Democrat leadership will not change for the 113th Congress.  Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) will be the Senate Majority Leader and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) will be the #2 and #3 ranking Democrats. 

Senate Republicans elected Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to continue as Senate Minority Leader.  Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) and Sen. John Thune (R-TN) were elected to the #2 and #3 Republican positions. 

In legislative action, the House passed a number of noncontroversial bills including forbidding U.S. airlines to pay a European Union tax on carbon emissions, authorizing a new natural gas pipeline for New York City, and ending Cold War era trade restrictions on Russia.

The Senate held two high profile hearings this week.  The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) held the confirmation hearing for General Joseph Dunford to be commander of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan/Commander, U.S. Forces, Afghanistan.  The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence received testimony this morning from former CIA Director David Patraeus on events surrounding the September 11 attack on the U.S Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

The Senate tried, but failed to move the Cybersecurity Act of 2012 to a vote.  Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who has listed passage of this bill a high DoD priority, expressed disappointment at the Senate action.  Panetta said the legislation “would have enhanced our nation’s ability to protect itself against cyber threats.”

But, these congressional actions served merely as the backdrop to the two issues that draw most congressional and public attention these days:  the impending sequestration and expiring Bush tax cuts.

As a prelude to formal negotiations, the president met with labor, business, and congressional leaders on the possible components of an agreement that would include some combination of revenue increases and expenditure decreases, especially to entitlement (e.g., Social Security and Medicare) spending.  Since the election last week, both Democrat and Republican leaders have expressed hope that a deal can be struck to avert sequestration on January 2, 2013 and large tax increases when the Bush tax cuts expire on December 31, 2012. 

However, even while trying to create an aura of cautious optimism with their conciliatory remarks, the president remained firm on his proposal to increase taxes on incomes over $250,000, Republican leaders resisted increases in tax rates, and Democrat leaders argued against cutting entitlement spending. 

Meanwhile, the drumbeat of concern about the drastic economic effects of $700 billion in tax increases and spending cuts continued.  Behind the scenes discussions will undoubtedly continue, but no real movement in negotiations will occur until after Congress returns from the Thanksgiving recess.