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Obama may delay start of his Christmas vacation

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama is likely to delay the start of his Christmas vacation to help several of his key legislative goals pass Congress before the end of the year, the White House said on Monday.

Obama is tentatively scheduled to depart on Saturday for Hawaii, where the family traditionally spends its year-end vacation. But lawmakers are still debating the extension of Bush-era tax cuts and a new nuclear weapons deal, both of which Obama is eager to see approved.

"The president will be here for as long as Congress is here," said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, adding he saw a good chance this would keep Obama in Washington next week.

Obama wants to make the most of the remaining time that both chambers of Congress are in the hands of his Democrats, before control of the House of Representatives switches in January to Republicans and they increase their weight in the Senate.

Congress is debating a $858 billion package of measures to keep income taxes low and extend unemployment benefits, as well as ratifying a new START nuclear weapons treaty that Obama has said is vital to U.S. relations with Russia.

The Senate takes a procedural vote on the tax package later on Monday. Obama thrashed it out with Republicans and has been criticized by other Democrats for conceding to their demand for a two-year extension of tax cuts for wealthier Americans.

The White House also hopes Congress will lift a ban on gays serving openly in the military.

Senate Republicans last week used delaying tactics to prevent a vote on a regularly approved military funding bill that contained a repeal of the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy.

Gibbs said he was confident the ban would be repealed by the end of the year.

(Reporting by Alister Bull; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)