The Senate’s 2013 to-do list

December 16, 2013

Senate Democratic leaders will have much to smile about if things go as planned this week. (AP)

In a year already marked by a historic lack of productivity, this is shaping up to be the busiest, most consequential week of the year for the U.S. Senate.

Senators are scheduled to be in town until Friday, but aides in both parties suggest they may wrap up sooner, maybe Wednesday or Thursday.

So what's left to be completed? Here's a quick preview:

NOMINATIONS:

The fight between Democrats and Republicans over the confirmation of several lower-level Obama administration nominees to federal courts and agencies is expected to wrap up this week.

Monday night, senators are expected to confirm Anne W. Patterson to serve as an assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs and Jeh C. Johnson to lead the Department of Homeland Security. The former top Pentagon lawyer and longtime Democratic Party fundraiser will be only the fourth person -- and the first black man -- to lead the sprawling department.

Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) also is likely to call votes later in the week to confirm Robert L. Wilkins as Obama's third and final nominee to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, generally considered the nation's second-most powerful court, and Janet Yellen to become the first woman to lead the U.S. Federal Reserve.

(Fun fact about Yellen via The Post's Zachary A. Goldfarb: Yellen will be the first Fed chief in more than 40 years to have a full head of hair.)

THE BUDGET:

The bipartisan budget agreement reached by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) earned more than 300 votes of support from both parties last week -- one of the widest bipartisan margins for any significant piece of legislation in recent years.

But it may struggle to clear procedural hurdles and earn final passage in the Senate.

Senators are expected to vote to end debate on the budget deal Tuesday morning, followed by a vote on final passage by Wednesday evening. Among Republicans, only Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has expressed full support: "I think it’s important that we have this agreement," he told CBS's "Face the Nation." Appearing on the same program, Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said Democrats "will need about eight Republicans to come our way" -- suggesting that at least three liberal Democrats might vote against the agreement.

Any liberal senator who votes against the plan will do so because the budget bill fails to renew unemployment insurance for roughly 1 million Americans who have been out of work for most of this year.

THE DEFENSE BILL:

The first time Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act, John F. Kennedy was president. It's been passed every year since, and with language setting the salaries of U.S. military personnel and those serving in harm's way, it's one of the few "must-pass" measures left in the sharply-divided Congress.

Fearing they might fail to pass the bill this year, top negotiators agreed last week to expedite the process by blocking any new amendments from senators. Regardless, it's expected to pass easily by Friday.

The 2013 NDAA will be remembered for dramatically rewriting military personnel policy by reining in a commander's ability to intervene in cases of rape or assault and by ending the statute of limitations on such accusations. But Reid has vowed that more ambitious proposals to address sexual assault in the ranks introduced by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) will earn a vote in the Senate next year.

THE FARM BILL:

This is the big "to do" item that won't be completed before the Senate leaves town. A new multi-year farm bill setting agricultural policy and providing federal aid to needy families won't be approved by Congress until January, at the earliest. Although the House voted last week to extend the current farm bill until Jan. 31, Senate Democrats don't think a formal extension is necessary because Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack believes one isn't needed if lawmakers agree to pass a new bill when they return from the holidays.

The House is expected to act first on the farm bill when Congress reconvenes, and the Senate will follow shortly thereafter.

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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