Though limited by record deficits, lawmakers are keen to spend money on creating jobs, even as they look to tackle health care, promote clean energy, write new regulations for Wall Street and plow through a host of leftover business, ranging from expiring tax cuts to renewing parts of the USA Patriot Act.
"It's going to be very difficult and we know that," said Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, Maryland Democrat and a member of the Budget Committee. "But it can be done."
House lawmakers return Tuesday and Mr. Cardin and his colleagues return next week, about a month after a grueling marathon session ended Christmas Eve with passage of the Senate's version of a health care overhaul.
Both chambers now must forge a compromise health care bill, but Democrats, who control both bodies, say they're looking to pivot to the jobs agenda.
Mr. Cardin said the top priority would be battling the country's 10 percent unemployment rate, though he doubted the Senate would agree to the House-passed second stimulus that would spend $154 billion on job programs.
He suggested that a jobs bill in the Senate would have to be crafted in the same manner as the nearly $1 trillion health care bill, which budget scorekeepers said would reduce the deficit over 10 years.
"There are things we need to do to make sure we invest in job growth, but we have to do it in a way that doesn't add to the deficit," Mr. Cardin said.
Complicating matters is the mixed record of the first stimulus law, which passed 11 months ago. The administration says it created hundreds of thousands of jobs, but press reports have challenged those numbers. An Associated Press analysis this week said stimulus infrastructure spending had no discernible effect on unemployment rates.
President Obama has signaled that he will focus heavily on jobs in the upcoming months, and will tour a job-training center in Maryland on Wednesday.
Embattled lawmakers say they need action.
"My top priority is to create necessary jobs in my district, and I believe that many of my colleagues in Congress, in addition to the Obama administration, have demonstrated that this is their chief priority as well," said first-term Rep. Michael E. McMahon of New York, a Democrat facing a tough re-election run in a Staten Island district previously held by Republicans.
"Clearly, there is concern over recent job numbers, but this Congress was right to put money back into our economy to stabilize it."
Mr. McMahon said the 85,000 jobs lost last month still represent a dramatic decrease from the 741,000 job losses last January when Mr. Obama took office.
"Change and growth do not happen overnight," Mr. McMahon said. "The stimulus dollars are starting to show a return, and I am going to work to make sure that remaining federal funds given to my district are spent as effectively and efficiently as possible."
Some touchy issues are likely to put lawmakers in a bind both on a funding and a philosophical level.
Many of President George W. Bush's tax cuts are slated to expire at the end of this year, and members of Congress are wary of facing voters without having addressed the issue.
For example, the estate tax dropped to 0 percent on Jan. 1 but will rise to 55 percent and apply to estates worth $1 million or more in 2011. Some Democrats are floating a compromise that would reimpose the tax but at a lower rate and a higher exemption level.
Other fights that are expected to touch on philosophy and jobs include the Employee Free Choice Act, the union-sought bill that would make it much easier to unionize a company's workers, and an overhaul of the nation's immigration system, which would legalize millions of illegal immigrants.
Among the strictly philosophical battles are issues such as the USA Patriot Act, parts of which are up for renewal.
The House finished far more than the Senate last year, which means House lawmakers in many cases will spend the year waiting on the senior circuit to act. That's true for everything from a cap-and-trade climate change bill to legislation overhauling student loans to a measure requiring chemical facilities to boost protections.