From unemployment to the farm bill: Here are 7 things Congress has to do this month

January 6

The Senate gets back in session on Monday, and the House gets back on Tuesday. So, what, exactly, is  Congress going to be doing in 2014? Here's a short list of what's on the front burner:

1) Avoid a government shutdown.

(Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg)
(Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg)

Yes, that's right. If the House and Senate don't pass a big spending bill before Jan. 15, we get another government shutdown. It's not very likely, but it is a possibility.

Right now, no one's overly worried about this. That's because Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen Patty Murray (D-Wash.) reached an agreement in December to set overall discretionary spending levels at $1.012 trillion for 2014. That takes most of the friction out of this debate. Still, appropriators now have to pass an actual spending bill (or bills) to decide how much each agency gets and what priorities get funded. And they have less than two weeks.

2) Decide whether to extend emergency unemployment insurance.

(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

On Dec. 28, an emergency program to help the jobless expired, cutting off benefits for 1.3 million people. Another 3.5 million people will be affected by the lapse this year. You can read the full breakdown of how this happened here.

Senate Democrats have said they'd like to pass a three-month extension of the bill this week while they figure out something longer term. That short extension would cost about $6.5 billion. Right now, it's very unclear whether this will actually pass. Some Republicans, including Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), have said they'd be okay with an extension if it was offset with spending cuts elsewhere. But some conservatives in the House are more skeptical about any sort of renewal.

3) Decide whether to extend 55 different tax breaks.

(Rick Bowmer/Associated Press)
(Rick Bowmer/Associated Press)

Back on Jan. 1, 55 different tax breaks expired. This included: An R&D tax credit for corporations. A production tax credit for wind power. A deduction to help teachers with their school expenses. Tax incentives for commuters to take mass transit. A rum-tax rebate program for Puerto Rico. And so on. You can see the full list here.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has a bill, S. 1859, to extend most of those tax breaks for another year. But Senate Republicans objected when the bill came up in December: Sen. Orrin Hatch wanted the bill to go through the Finance Committee first, while Minority Leader Mitch McConnell suggested that the GOP would take up the bill only if Democrats withdrew some of their nominations.

Extending these tax breaks would cost about $55 billion a year. And if they're not offset by spending cuts or tax hikes elsewhere, then they'll put a decent-sized dent in the national debt:

12-9-13tax-f1

So... this one's also unclear. In theory, these extensions don't have to get done in January. Congress could extend the tax breaks retroactively at any time this year (in 2012, they weren't extended until that December). But the longer they go, the harder it is for people and companies to do tax planning.

4) Pass a farm bill.

A farmers market in Roseville, Calif., advertises its acceptance of EBT (electronic benefit transfer) cards, which are used for food stamps. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)
A farmers market in Roseville, Calif., advertises its acceptance of EBT (electronic benefit transfer) cards, which are used for food stamps. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

The House and Senate will also have to resume their haggling over a five-year farm bill, since the last one just expired. The main point of contention, as before, is over how much to pare back the food stamp program.

The Senate approved a farm bill that would make only minor changes to the food stamp program, saving $4.5 billion over 10 years (compared with current law). House Republicans, meanwhile, went even further, proposing a bill that would cut $39 billion from the program over 10 years, largely by tightening restrictions on who could qualify for food stamps:

The House bill would remove 3.8 million people from the food stamp rolls over the upcoming year by making two big changes:

-- It would reinstate limits on benefits for able-bodied, childless adults ages 18 to 50. These recipients would be able to collect only limited benefits — up to three months over a three-year period — unless they worked more than 20 hours per week or enrolled in job-training programs. (States are currently able to waive these latter requirements when unemployment is high.)

Conservatives have argued that reinstating the work requirements will encourage adults to find jobs more quickly. Critics have countered that employment opportunities are still scarce in many parts of the country and that many Americans will simply lose their food aid without finding work.

-- The second big change is that the House bill would restrict states' abilities to determine a person's eligibility for food stamps based in part on whether they qualify for other low-income benefits. This is known as "categorical eligibility" and has generally allowed families just above the poverty line to receive food stamps if they have unusually high housing costs or are facing other hardships.

It's unclear how many of these cuts will actually get passed into law, however, since the House and Senate still have to figure out how to reconcile their two bills.

5) Confirm Janet Yellen as the Federal Reserve chief.

President Obama nominated Janet Yellen to succeed Fed chairman Ben Bernanke. (Federal Reserve/Flickr)
President Obama nominated Janet Yellen to succeed Fed chairman Ben Bernanke. (Federal Reserve/Flickr)

Okay, this one should be relatively easy. The Senate is planning to vote Monday to confirm Janet Yellen as chairwoman of the Federal Reserve. She's expected to sail through. Yellen would be the first woman to head the Fed, replacing Ben Bernanke. Here's a profile of Yellen by my colleagues Neil Irwin and Ylan Mui.

6) Avoid a debt-ceiling fiasco.

(The Washington Post)
(The Washington Post)

Yes, this again. The Treasury's borrowing authority runs out on Feb. 7. That means Congress has to lift the debt ceiling before then, or else... well, you can read all the dire apocalyptic predictions in our debt-ceiling primer.

President Obama has said that he won't negotiate over the debt ceiling. Congress needs to raise it, and that's that. But some House Republicans are again talking about extracting concessions. Last month, Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, offered one possible wish-list item: "I believe we need to approve Keystone pipeline. We need to produce regulatory certainties to all this private capital that develops this energy boon." And Senate Minority Leader McConnell has said that he "can't imagine" a clean debt-ceiling hike.

7. Mangage a bunch of other legislative debates, from immigration to flood insurance.

(AP)
(AP)

The six items above are the really glaring priorities on the to-do list. But the House and Senate are likely to talk about — and maybe even vote on — several other legislative measures this year, including:

-- Senate Democrats want a vote on a bill that would raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour.

-- Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and other coastal senators want a vote on a bill that would delay increases in flood insurance for policyholders. (See here for more background.)

-- Dozens of senators are pushing a bill that would increase sanctions on Iran. The Obama administration is opposed to this idea, arguing that it would undermine the nuclear deal it reached with Tehran late last year.

-- Plus there's immigration. The Senate has already passed a huge bill to overhaul the nation's immigration laws. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has said he'd prefer to take up this issue in smaller chunks.

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