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Time Is Tight for Congress' Year-End To-Do List

Time Is Tight for Congress' Year-End To-Do List

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - December 3, 2013

Members of Congress aren't likely to spend this holiday season, including New Year's Eve, in the Capitol, as was the case last year. That's when a stroke-of-midnight deadline to pass a critical fiscal policy package had lawmakers singing "Auld Lang Syne" in their offices.

But that doesn’t mean Congress doesn’t have a full docket of unfinished business to complete before its leaves for a weeks-long holiday break. From a budget agreement to an already lapsed farm bill to an authorization of Pentagon policy and spending, the lengthy to-do list is all the more challenging given a skimpy time frame.

House members returned to Washington on Monday night from Thanksgiving recess and will remain in session until Dec. 13. The Senate is scheduled to be back on campus Dec. 9, but those lawmakers will return to their home states on Dec. 20. That means the two chambers will overlap for just five legislative days before the year ends.

A self-imposed 2014 budget deadline tops the priorities of that short legislative session. A bipartisan, bicameral group of lawmakers must come to an agreement by Dec. 13 to fund the government, which runs out of money on Jan. 15. The deadlines came from a short-term deal reached in October to re-open the government after a three-week shutdown.

Republican Rep. Paul Ryan and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, the chairs of their respective chambers’ budget committees, talked over the Thanksgiving recess, and conversations will continue among the 29 conference members and their staffs through this week.

If reached, the deal is expected to be a narrow one. Such an agreement would likely address how much of sequestration to replace with other cuts and, in doing so, set the top-line spending levels for the government’s operating budget. Democrats would like to get close to the $1.1 trillion level put in place prior to last year’s Budget Control Act, which mandated the across-the-board spending reductions known as sequester, and Republicans prefer a deal at the $967 billion level.

As part of sequestration, another $20 billion cut to the Defense Department is expected to go into effect in mid-January, a pressure point for lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Aides say that major structural changes desired by one side or the other -- tax increases for Democrats and entitlement cuts from Republicans -- aren’t likely to be addressed in such a small deal.

House Speaker John Boehner said that if the committee fails to strike an agreement by Dec. 13, the House will move forward with another continuing resolution to avoid another shutdown.

Meanwhile, another conference committee is meeting on the farm bill -- a $1 trillion five-year measure (versions of which have passed either the House or the Senate) to deal with agriculture subsidies and welfare and nutrition programs. Leaders came away from a meeting before the Thanksgiving break without a solution, sending signals that work may not be finished in time for votes in both chambers by the next recess.

At issue is how to move on from the current system, by which the government pays subsidies to farmers directly, and how much to cut from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known more commonly as food stamps. The Senate version trimmed $4 billion from the program, while the House cut roughly $40 billion.

Congress has already spent two years working on the bill, which expired in 2011, and has been operating through short-term deals. Lawmakers have until Jan. 1 to renew the law, and failure to do so could harm the financial markets and lead to a rise in food prices.

Another top issue facing lawmakers is the National Defense Authorization Act, a $625 billion measure that approves military policy, programs, pay and benefits. The bill, a version of which the House has already passed, is stalled in the Senate after a disagreement over how many amendments to attach to it, leaving little time to get the measure through both chambers again.

Some attachments address the growing problem of sexual assaults in the military and how those cases should be addressed. The Senate recently voted down an amendment on transfers of Guantanamo Bay detainees, but the issue could emerge again in conference committee. Lawmakers may also try to toughen sanctions on Iran, as members have expressed dissatisfaction with the temporary nuclear deal struck between the White House and Tehran.

Additionally, Congress has to reauthorize the Water Resources Reform and Development Act, a projects bill that is currently in conference committee. And by the start of the new year, extended unemployment benefits for 2 million Americans will lapse, along with a host of individual and corporate tax breaks.

Beyond these funding matters, the Senate will likely consider the appointment of Janet Yellen to head the Federal Reserve. Her nomination cleared the Banking Committee with some bipartisan support, and Majority Leader Harry Reid’s alteration of Senate rules for executive nominees will help make for a smooth confirmation. The Senate also has to confirm Jeh Johnson as secretary of Homeland Security, Mel Watt to lead the Federal Housing Finance Agency, as well as three D.C. Circuit Court nominees previously blocked by Republicans before the filibuster rules change.

This packed year-end calendar leaves virtually no room for meaningful movement on immigration reform legislation, a top priority of the White House that was met with enthusiasm at the beginning of 2013 but fizzled after winning Senate passage in June. 

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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