Congress limping to end of raucous post-election session

Reuters News
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Posted: Dec 13, 2014 11:23 AM

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Congress, hobbled all year by partisan infighting, was struggling to pass basic measures such as funding the government and extending popular tax breaks.

With its back up against a midnight Saturday deadline for paying for government programs for the next nine months, lawmakers held a rare weekend session to try to advance the must-do measures.

The spending bill would fund activities ranging from Pentagon weapons purchases to federal aid for community law enforcement and education programs.

Progress was so slow that lawmakers were forced to pass spending bills lasting for mere days to avoid government shutdowns like the one that rocked Washington in October 2013.

Washington's current spending authority expires at midnight Saturday (12.00 a.m. ET on Sunday), but probably will be extended until midnight Wednesday (12.00 a.m. ET on Thursday) to give the Senate more time to finish a $1.1 trillion measure that President Barack Obama is awaiting.

Senate leaders, unable to pass the huge budget bill quickly, might be forced to hold a procedural vote on Sunday at 1 a.m. eastern time (1.00 a.m. ET). It is needed to clear the way for passage on Monday of the bill to fund most government activities through Sept. 30, 2015.

Conservative senators, including Ted Cruz of Texas, were demanding that they be allowed to offer an amendment that would cut off Department of Homeland Security funds for carrying out Obama's move to relax deportations of some undocumented immigrants.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was blocking the amendment. In remarks on the Senate floor Saturday, he said, "Regrettably, a small group of Senate Republicans has determined it is in their political interest to hold this legislation hostage."

But it wasn't just budget matters weighing on Congress.

The Senate in coming days is hoping to approve a "tax extenders" bill to renew 55 already expired tax breaks, retroactive to Jan. 1, 2014.

The House has passed a one-year extension, which is awaiting Senate action after negotiations collapsed on a more permanent solution. Congress wants to settle the matter, even temporarily, before January, when taxpayers begin filing tax returns for 2014.

Legislation would renew tax breaks for business research and development costs, as well as breaks for teachers, commuters, green energy and others.

The Senate also hopes to approve a federal terrorism insurance program that is important to sports stadium owners and other major construction projects.

The House has passed a six-year renewal of the law that stemmed from the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington.

It was unclear whether the House and Senate can come to an agreement on a bill during this Congress.

Senate Democrats also have a list of Obama nominees they want to confirm before losing their majority to Republicans in the 114th Congress that convenes in January.

The nominees, ranging from ambassadors and judges to a new head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, could have a tougher time winning approval in the Republican-controlled Senate next year.