Of the unresolved issues, a budget agreement is most critical. House and Senate budget negotiators have set Dec. 13 as a self-imposed deadline to reach an agreement. Assuming the deadline isn't pushed back, Congress will have just six days when it returns on Jan. 7 to strike a deal by Jan. 15, or risk another government shutdown. Lawmakers leading the talks, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and his Senate counterpart, Patty Murray (D-Wash.), have agreed to abandon consideration of new tax increases or cuts to federal health benefits and are focusing instead on cuts to mandatory spending programs other than Social Security or Medicare.
The farm bill, already two years overdue, is due by Jan. 1. Failure to enact a deal by then means that certain agricultural policies will begin rolling back to laws passed in the 1930s and 1940s, meaning that the price of milk, for example, will gradually climb to more than $3 a gallon. The biggest hurdle for House and Senate negotiators is agreeing on how much money to cut from the federal food stamp program. The Senate would cut about $4 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program over the next decade, while the House hopes to slash nearly $40 billion. Talks are also at an impasse over how to rewrite commodity titles, an issue that earns little attention broadly, but outsized concern in several rural farming states.
Then there's the National Defense Authorization Act, which is currently up for debate in the Senate. But Senate leaders can't agree on how many amendments to consider. Already senators rejected competing proposals regarding detainees at the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but more controversial amendments over how the Pentagon should handle a rise of sexual assault cases in the ranks also await votes.
In the Senate, a slate of nominees awaits final confirmation votes, most notably Jeh Johnson to lead the Department of Homeland Security and Janet Yellen to serve as the next chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve. Senators might also confirm at least one of three judicial nominees who already have been blocked once by Republicans, prompting Democrats to change Senate procedural rules on confirming nominees.
Can all of this be done in five days -- or will the House and Senate stick around a little longer to finish their work? Stay tuned.
For a much more detailed review of Congress's December to-do list, make sure to check out Paul Kane's story in Monday's Washington Post.