Time is running out for Congress this year on must-pass legislation to pay for federal programs, allow the government to borrow more money, keep highway projects going and prevent the jobless from losing unemployment and health insurance benefits.
It's become a tradition for lawmakers to reach the final weeks of a session without yet renewing programs that expired with the start of the budget year on Oct. 1 or will end on Dec. 31. But with the Senate devoting all the next two weeks to a health care bill, the year-end pileup has reached new dimensions.
More than two months into the 2010 budget year, Congress has sent to the president only five of the 12 annual spending bills. That means that defense, justice, health, education and transportation programs are still being funded at last year's levels under a temporary measure that expires Dec. 18.
As in the past, some or all of those undone bills will get combined in a massive catchall measure called an "omnibus" that attracts other critical legislation that Congress doesn't have the time to deal with separately.
Lawmakers agree it's a bad way to make laws, but say there's often no other choice when the clock is winding down.
"It's apparent that the other body (the Senate) can't walk and chew gum at the same time," said a frustrated Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Oberstar has pushed unsuccessfully for a $450 billion, six-year highway and transit bill to replace the old one that died on Sept. 30. With no chance of action soon, he'll have to settle for another short-term extension of the old program. "We have to face up to that reality, unfortunately."
Similarly, Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., isn't getting much Senate help in extending federal unemployment insurance benefits through 2010, at a cost of some $85 billion.
With the National Employment Law Project predicting that 1 million jobless workers will lose benefits in January if Congress doesn't extend stimulus act provisions, doing nothing "simply is not acceptable. It will happen," McDermott said.
A short-term extension of jobless benefits and as well as subsidies to help the unemployed buy health insurance will get tacked on to an omnibus package just before Christmas.
Among other must-do items:
_The House voted last week to keep the current top rate for the estate tax at 45 percent for estates larger than $3.5 million. Without Senate action, the tax would disappear in 2010 but return in 2011 at a higher rate of 55 percent for estates over $1 million. Even so, the Senate might not act on it until early next year.
_There are 30 tax breaks, mainly aimed at helping businesses, that expire at the end of the year and must be renewed. The House probably will vote on them this week. Also ending is a program giving products from some 130 developing countries duty-free entry into the United States.
_Three provisions of the anti-terrorism Patriot Act expire at the end of the year. Some Democrats want to make changes to better ensure that government surveillance doesn't violate privacy rights.
_The government could have to quit borrowing money if Congress doesn't act within the next few weeks to raise the debt ceiling, currently at $12.1 trillion. Fiscal conservatives from both sides are balking at a vote unless they get assurances the administration is taking deficit-cutting steps.
_The House acted in November to shield doctors from a 21 percent reduction in Medicare payments next month, a measure brought up almost every year because of a glitch in the reimbursement formula. But with a price tag of more than $200 billion and a distracted Senate, it's not clear what will happen next.
_Lawmakers have tried for several years to revamp the law governing the Federal Aviation Administration to promote airport safety, modernize air traffic control systems and ensure passenger rights. They'll probably have to settle for another three-month extension of the old law.
_Another candidate for an omnibus package is a still-unwritten jobs bill that could include such measures as promotion of green energy, infrastructure spending or hiring-related tax credits. The House could vote on a separate bill in coming weeks but again, action on it is more likely after New Year's.
Putting off some of these issues until next year _ under the presumption that the health care debate will finally be over _ has its own problems. Waiting in line to consume the time and attention of Congress are President Barack Obama's other major initiatives: overhauling the financial regulatory system, passing clean energy legislation and paying for his 30,000-troop expansion of the war in Afghanistan.
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