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Full Slate of Issues Likely to Extend Lawmakers' Work Calendar

Climate activists float rooftops in the reflecting pool to mark the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Lawmakers are working on a climate-change bill.
Climate activists float rooftops in the reflecting pool to mark the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Lawmakers are working on a climate-change bill. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
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Some lawmakers, including House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.), have advocated a three-month extension, with the hope of trying again for a full-scale bill next year. But the current cost of such a measure would be $450 billion, a frightening sum to an administration dealing with record budget deficits.

In addition, Congress faces the need to raise the federal debt ceiling in the coming months. The House has voted to do so, but the Senate has not. Republicans will almost certainly use the opportunity to cast Obama as a profligate spender, so Democrats may attach the debt measure to a more popular bill, such as the defense appropriations measure.

The tax code is also on the clock this year.

If Congress does nothing, the estate tax will cease to exist in 2010 but then come back in 2011 at the higher rate that existed before President George W. Bush took office.

Currently, estates worth up to $3.5 million per individual -- $7 million per couple -- are exempt from the tax, with everything above that amount subject to a tax rate of 45 percent. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) has proposed locking in the current exemption and rate permanently, while Sens. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) have advocated increasing the exemption to $5 million per individual and dropping the rate above that to 35 percent.

Rep. Sander M. Levin (D-Mich.), a member of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, said he expects that the estate tax legislation will keep the rate "more or less where it is," as Baucus has suggested and Obama proposed during his presidential campaign.

Congress may not deal with the issue until later this fall, but there is no doubt it will be addressed.

"I think everybody's adamant that it has to get done this year, so it will get done," said Rep. Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.), also a member of the Ways and Means panel.

The economic stimulus package, which passed in February, included a handful of provisions that are set to expire later this year, including the tax credit for first-time home buyers. It is unclear whether Congress will find the time or money to extend it.

Democratic leaders do plan to extend unemployment insurance this year, as the slow economic recovery means that many job-seekers' benefits are running out. Several lawmakers are pushing for a 13-week extension.

In the next tier are the measures that do not require action but that congressional leaders are eager to complete this year. That list includes the defense authorization bill, which has passed both chambers and now awaits conference, and a food safety bill that has passed the House but has yet to receive Senate consideration.

With the encouragement of labor groups, Democratic leaders want to move the Employee Free Choice Act, or "card check bill," this year. But the union-organizing measure appears not to have the 60 votes necessary to proceed in the Senate. Immigration reform also remains on the congressional radar, though the White House and top lawmakers do not expect floor action on that front until 2010.

Some members are also pushing for completion of a bill that would authorize intelligence programs, though that has somewhat dimmer prospects for passage.

"I think it has to get done," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairman of the intelligence panel, noting that an intelligence authorization bill was last signed into law in 2004.

Asked about the chances that a measure will be completed this year, Feinstein responded "60/40" in favor of action. Leadership aides in both chambers are more skeptical that a bill will be finished.

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