Politics: Congress' to-do list could require time it doesn't have

By NICOLE DEBEVEC, United Press International   |  Dec. 8, 2013 at 4:01 AM
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The good news for the U.S. Congress is that members have the month of December to complete their laundry list of items -- including a farm bill, food stamps, a budget for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, a slew of presidential nominations, possibly revisiting unemployment benefits, maybe take up imposing more sanctions on Iran -- before 2014.

The bad news is Congress has less than a week to do it.

The House returned Dec. 2 and expects to adjourn for the year by Friday. The Senate is scheduled to return from the Thanksgiving break Monday and has Dec. 20 as its tentative end date.

That's a one-week overlap to git'er done -- although House leaders indicated they could be in session past their get-back-to-the-district date.

Times being what they are, neither chamber spoke to the other about syncing up their December calendars.

Of issues facing lawmakers, reaching a budget agreement is the most critical because House and Senate negotiators set a self-imposed deadline of Friday to reach an accord.

What does this mean? If all is copacetic, Congress will have just six days when it returns Jan. 7 to reach a budget deal by Jan. 15 -- or risk another government shutdown, which took a political toll on both parties although Republicans more so than Democrats.

But people knowledgeable about discussions between House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and his Senate counterpart, Patty Murray, D-Wash., told Politico a budget is moving closer to reality.

Ryan and Murray were considering a plan that would provide relief to some of the domestic and defense programs most burdened by the sequester through 2015 by replacing the draconian cuts with budgetary savings in other areas. New revenue through fee increases, not tax increases, is likely, Politico reported.

The plan also would try to find middle ground between overall federal spending levels sought by Ryan and Murray in their respective budget proposals. Under one scenario, overall discretionary spending levels would be in the $1 trillion range for 2014, up from the $967 billion spending level under the House's Budget Control Act but lower than the $1.058 trillion level sought by Senate Democrats, the sources told Politico.

If the two sides agree to that approach, the increase in spending would be divided roughly equally between defense and non-defense spending, Politico said.

"We're making progress," Ryan said of discussions last week. "We're talking."

"The most important thing right now is to make sure we don't have a government shutdown. ... I don't think it's likely, but look, we stumbled into one before that I didn't think was wise," Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., a member of the budget negotiations, told ABC News. "Around here, we can't walk and chew gum. Let's just chew gum for a little while. And right now, chewing gum is getting a budget deal and making sure that we don't default when the debt ceiling comes around."

And recognizing that budget talks can always evaporate, Boehner is prepared to pass a bill that would fund the government past the Jan. 15 deadline at $967 billion if Murray and Ryan can't reach agreement. Even though Senate Democrats adamantly oppose setting such low spending levels, sources told Politico Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., was prepared to accept the stop-gap measure to avoid another shutdown.

Now that most presidential nominees requiring the Senate's consent need only a simple majority -- the so-called nuclear option in congressional parlance -- a slate of nominees awaits final confirmation votes, notably Jeh Johnson to lead the Department of Homeland Security and Janet Yellen to succeed Ben Bernanke as leader of the U.S. Federal Reserve. Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., President Obama's choice to run the organization that oversees mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, could be brought up again as well after Senate Democrats failed to break a GOP filibuster earlier. Senators might confirm judicial nominees who were blocked by Republicans -- which led to the procedural rule change in the first place.

Also well beyond its expiration date of two years ago is a new farm bill that's due by Jan. 1, or, if nothing happens, some agriculture policies roll back to laws that were passed in the 1930s and 1940s, the Washington Post reported. What does that mean for the average dairy consumer? Higher prices for those dairy products.

The biggest hurdle, though, for House and Senate conferees is agreeing on how much money should be cut from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, aka federal food stamps. The Senate wants to cut about $4 billion from SNAP over the next decade while the House wants to slash 10 times that amount. In fact, the House had to pass two bills -- one just for food stamps and the other for every other ag issue/subsidy -- a move that drew wails of protest and accusations from Democrats about GOP insensitivity to those who need food stamps to survive.

Then there's the National Defense Authorization Act being debated in the Senate. Senate leaders, however, can't agree on how many amendments to consider, already having rejected competing proposals concerning detainees at the prison at the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. More controversial measures, such as how the Pentagon should handle a rise of sexual assault cases, also await votes.

Reid has promised to spend time on Iran sanctions legislation, despite the Obama administration wanting more time to see if diplomacy will work concerning Iran's new-found desire to negotiate over its controversial nuclear program.

Also due to expire at December's end are emergency benefits for the long-term unemployed. Democrats have pushed to continue the program of extended benefits for an additional year, arguing while the 7.3 unemployment rate in October is down from a 10 percent mark in October 2009, it's still high historically speaking, the Wall Street Journal reported. But at a cost of $25 billion, Republicans have been resistant.

On some lawmakers' agenda is blocking a year-end payment reduction for doctors under Medicare, a cut originally made in a 1997 budget law that's meant to keep the growth of Medicare payment rates in check, the Journal said. As scheduled cuts have grown, Congress each year passed short-term measures known as the "doc fix."

The Congressional Budget Office said if Congress doesn't enact a doc fix in December, physicians' Medicare payments would be cut by 24 percent, which could drive many practitioners from the program.

House and Senate aides also agree the expiration of laws banning plastic guns also must be addressed, the Post said.

On Monday, the 1988 law banning weapons manufacturers from making guns that can't be detected by security systems expires. GOP and Democratic aides said the two chambers would like to approve some extension of the law to deter wider criminal use of the plastic guns, which are less detectable than metallic weapons.

With so many important issues and so little time, senior House GOP and Senate Democratic advisers told the Post three sets of benefits expiring Dec. 31 likely won't win approval: some unemployment benefits, funding to help workers displaced by global trade and business-friendly tax breaks.

The aides said some of those issues could be folded into the budget bill, with retroactive dates for benefits applied to mitigate any damage created by the gap between Dec. 31 and the spending bill's enactment.

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