Congress rushes to finish work for year

AP News
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Posted: Dec 15, 2009 5:48 PM

Funding the military, ensuring the jobless don't run out of benefits and maintaining the government's authority to borrow are just a few of the outstanding items as Congress rushes to finish its work in the dwindling days of this year.

With the Senate focused solely on health care legislation and no time left to consider bills separately, several of the most important unfinished issues will be attached to a $626 billion defense spending bill the House is expected to take up Wednesday.

House Democratic leaders also said there would be a vote Wednesday on a $153 billion jobs package that invests in highway and school renovation projects and provides emergency relief for the jobless.

The measures to be included in the defense bill include two-month extensions of several programs set to die at year's end, among them federal jobless benefits approved as part of the economic stimulus package last February, health insurance subsidies for the unemployed and federal funds for highway and other infrastructure projects.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, at a news conference Tuesday, said the package will also extend for two months several provisions of the anti-terror Patriot Act that are set to expire while the two chambers work out issues of surveillance and privacy rights.

A small business loan program, a satellite TV distribution law and a measure that temporarily shields doctors from a sharp cut in Medicare payments are also expected to be part of the defense bill, which Hoyer said he hoped the Senate would accept without modification so it can quickly be sent to President Barack Obama signature.

The spate of two-month extensions of current law means that Congress will have to return to the issues in February, clogging up a legislative schedule when Democrats will want to focus on jobs, deficit reduction and clean energy legislation. But Democrats have no choice, given the demands of the Senate. "In a world of alternatives, that's the one we have," Hoyer said.

Hoyer said the House on Wednesday will also approve a stopgap measure to ensure that Pentagon isn't deprived of money because of congressional delays in approving the defense bill, and a measure to raise the debt ceiling.

House action on all those bills would conclude its major tasks for the year. It would still have to wait for the Senate, where debate could spill over into Christmas week, depending on Senate action on the health care overhaul bill.

The Treasury will lose its borrowing authority when the government reaches its current debt limit of $12.1 trillion in the coming days. Democratic leaders had proposed a huge increase of about $1.8 trillion, but ran into trouble from fiscal conservatives in their own party. Senate moderates wanted to tie the ceiling increase to creation of a task force on deficit reduction; House fiscal hawks sought a vote on requiring that any increase in the deficit be offset by new revenues or budget cuts elsewhere.

Hoyer said the agreement with the Senate called for raising the debt ceiling "in excess of a couple hundred billion dollars," lasting about two months.

The jobs bill outlined by Speaker Nancy Pelosi Tuesday would include $75 billion for highways and transit, school renovation and hiring teachers and police, with the money coming from funds left over from last year's $700 billion financial bailout.

There would also be $78 billion in emergency relief _ a six-month extension of unemployment benefits and health care subsidies for the jobless, aid to states for Medicaid and extension of a child tax credit for low-income families. House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., said the half-year extension of unemployment benefits would cost $40 billion minus the amount already expended for the two-month extension in the defense bill.

There is no chance that the Senate will take up a jobs package this year, but with unemployment hovering at 10 percent Democrats were keen on laying down a legislative marker before going home for the holidays.

That busy agenda still fails to deal with some critical issues. The House has voted 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. As of Tuesday, the House and Senate were still discussing what to do about the estate tax and about 30 other business-related tax breaks set to end on Dec. 31.

House Democrats have proposed a variety of extensions of the current estate tax, ranging from two months to a year, said Rep. Earl Pomery, D-N.D., who authored the House bill that permanently extends the tax. Pomery said the Senate has not been able to come up with enough votes to support any of the proposals.

Action on the defense bill would close out the congressional obligation to act on 12 spending, or appropriations, bills to fund federal programs for the budget year that began on Oct. 1.

On Sunday the Senate approved and sent to the president a massive bill _ totaling $1.1 trillion when money for mandatory benefit programs such as Medicare and Medicaid are included _ that encompassed six of those dozen bills.

Republicans, in the minority in both the House and Senate, railed against what has become an annual tradition of rolling unfinished business into giant year-end packages.

House Republicans sent Pelosi a letter last week voicing opposition to adding controversial items to the defense bill, normally legislation that enjoys strong GOP backing. "Unfortunately, there seems to be a pattern developing this year of using legislation that supports our men and women in uniform to pass other contentious proposals that are extraneous to our troops," they wrote.

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