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Congress to return with full plate of leftovers

Posted: December 28, 2013 - 7:46pm

 WASHINGTON — After a brief year-end break, Congress will return to work in January with plenty to do before President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address at the end of the month.

Among the early must-do items are a farm bill and a final budget for the 2014 fiscal year.

Without a farm bill, milk prices could double as price-setting policies for dairy revert to a 1946 law. Without a final budget, the federal government would face another partial shutdown on Jan. 15, similar to the one in October that closed national parks and other non-essential services.

The Senate is scheduled to return on Monday, Jan. 6. The House returns a day later. The State of the Union address is scheduled for Jan. 28.

Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., a member of the conference committee negotiating a final version of the farm bill, expects it will be completed in time to avoid any ugly ramifications as the current law expires.

“A lot of people are working hard to get a farm bill passed. We are very close to an agreement,” Boozman said. “I think it will happen early next year. It’s not going to fall apart.”

Before the House adjourned, members approved a temporary extension of farm policies to avoid the so-called “dairy cliff.” The Senate did not follow up, preferring to keep the deadline.

“It puts more pressure with the deadline to get it done,” Boozman said.

Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., said the Department of Agriculture could put off for at least a few weeks most of the disruptions that would occur if lawmakers fail to approve a new farm bill.

“So, the feeling is that it is better to have it (the expiration) looming out there rather than a 30-day extension because Congress would just take the extra time and not get it done any quicker,” he said. “Sometime in January we should get that passed.”

Congress did approve a budget blueprint before the end of 2013 that established the bottom line for discretionary pending at just over $1 trillion in the 2014 fiscal year. That still leaves congressional appropriators with the task of deciding where the money will be spent across government agencies.

Under normal circumstances, Congress is supposed to enact a dozen separate spending bills. This time, they will likely end up approving a single omnibus bill that allows for agencies to operate through September 2014.

“We can probably get an omnibus appropriations bill passed in January, which again is a good thing,” Pryor said. “I’ve heard rumors that the House is going to take it up the week they get back.”

Passing the budget resolution, Pryor said, was huge because it puts the House and Senate on the same track. It also removed concerns that there would be another battle over defunding the Affordable Care Act, which led to a 16-day government shutdown in October.

The year-end deal offered some hope that this congress could overcome the partisan gridlock that had otherwise left it in dysfunction.

“After a year of shutdowns and obstruction that only held back our economy, we’ve been able to break the logjam a bit over the last few weeks. It’s a hopeful sign that we can end the cycle of short-sighted, crisis-driven decision-making and actually work together to get things done,” Obama said in a recent radio address.

A Pew Research Center analysis found 2013 to be the least productive year for Congress in two decades. Only 65 laws — substantive and ceremonial — were approved, fewer than any in 20 years. Congress also failed to revoke any old laws despite numerous attempts by House Republicans to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

The paltry record drew public scorn according to Gallup, which found only 14 percent of the public approved of the job Congress did in 2013 — the lowest annual average it the poll’s history.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., summed up the public contempt at an end-of-the-year press conference.

“Congress is finishing this year less popular than a cockroach,” he said.

Aside from the must-do budget and farm bill, Reid has pledged an early Senate debate over long-term federal unemployment benefits.

About 1.3 million Americans, including some 40,300 in Arkansas, saw their long-term benefits expire on Saturday, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The emergency benefits were first approved in 2008 to provide assistance to Americans out of work for more than six months, and have been extended since then but are now expiring. While the unemployment rate has gone down since then, the average length of unemployment is 37 weeks.

Aside from the 1.3 million who face an immediate loss of the federal benefit, another 3.6 million Americans were expected to need the benefit in 2014, according to the Center.

Reid said the issue would be on the Senate floor the first week that members return to work.

Pryor has not decided if he will support the extension while Boozman plans to oppose it.

“Extending a temporary benefit created during the height of our recession is not a long-term solution,” Boozman said. “The best thing we can do for unemployed Arkansans and small businesses right now is repeal Obamacare, roll up our sleeves, and get to work in Washington.”

Michael Teague, a spokesman for Pryor, said that the senator was looking over the details of the unemployment proposals.

“He also understands that unemployment benefits cannot continue indefinitely. At some point they have to end,” Teague said.

Boozman and Pryor have also joined a chorus of lawmakers seeking to amend the just-approved budget deal to strike a provision that would reduce pension benefits for military retirees.

 The measure was included as a way to avoid $65 billion in automatic, across-the-board cuts to discretionary spending over the next decade.

“We need to cut spending but we need to cut it in responsible way,” Pryor said. “We’ll have a chance to fix this sometime soon.”

Pryor introduced legislation to take care of the issue.

Reps. Tim Griffin, R-Little Rock, Tom Cotton, R-Dardanelle, and Steve Womack, R-Rogers, have co-sponsored legislation that would restore the proposed military pension reduction by taking money instead from certain tax credits claimed by undocumented immigrants.

Griffin has also co-sponsored legislation that would restore the cost-of-living increase without identifying a substitute funding source, and another that would restore the benefits at least to those retired for disabled veterans.

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