By Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Congress returns on Tuesday for a post-election "lame-duck" session, facing a funding deadline to prevent a partial government shutdown, as well as demands for protections for Special Counsel Robert Mueller and money for a proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall.
Those issues, plus leadership contests among both Democrats and Republicans, promise to dominate the brief session of Congress wedged in between last week's congressional elections and the start of the 2019-2020 Congress in January.
In the elections, voters ended the Republicans' majority control of the House of Representatives and gave it to the Democrats, while leaving the Senate in Republican hands. But nothing will actually change until January.
For now, Republicans will retain their dominance in both chambers, although Democrats are already ramping up challenges to their partisan rivals and Republican President Donald Trump.
"This election cycle really was about delivering a check to this administration, and it would be quite disappointing if we do not do that for the people,” Democratic Representative-elect Ilhan Omar of Minnesota told a news conference in Washington.
The main legislative project for the lame-duck session will be a spending bill, said aides and lawmakers. Passage is needed to keep the Department of Homeland Security and some other agencies operating beyond Dec. 7, when the money runs out.
As is often the case, some lawmakers hope to attach other measures to this "must-do" spending bill.
For instance, Democrats and some Republicans want to attach legislation to prevent Trump from impeding or ending the work of Mueller, who is leading an inquiry into Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and whether the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow to help Trump win.
The Republican president repeatedly has characterized the Mueller investigation as a "witch hunt" and has denied that he or his associates colluded with Russia. Moscow has said it did not interfere in the election.
Democrats and some Republicans worry that Trump is maneuvering to fire or significantly restrain the special counsel.
Trump last week forced out Attorney General Jeff Sessions and replaced him with Matthew Whitaker as acting attorney general in charge of overseeing Mueller. Whitaker has described Mueller's probe as being too wide-ranging.
Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal has told Reuters that he is considering legal action over the Whitaker appointment. On Monday, an aide said Blumenthal's staff was still looking at how a legal challenge could be brought against Trump.
The Justice Department said on Monday night that Whitaker would consult with ethics officials about any matters that could require him to recuse himself.
On another front, Trump has threatened to let some federal agency funding lapse unless Congress provides more than $20 billion for a U.S.-Mexico border wall. He made construction of the wall a key campaign pledge.
Republicans and Democrats in the Senate and House must also choose new leaders, with Nancy Pelosi, the Democrats' leader for the past 16 years, making a strong bid to become House speaker in a closed-door Nov. 28 party leadership election.
Pelosi made history from 2007 to 2011 as the first woman speaker, a powerful position second in the line of emergency presidential succession after the vice president.
(Reporting by Richard Cowan; Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell, David Morgan and Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Peter Cooney)