House and Senate lawmakers return to Washington this week to complete several pieces of unfinished business and to begin picking new political fights on topics designed to generate support from their political base at the start of another election year.
The issues facing Congress in the coming weeks are being championed by a cast of less-familiar characters -- a mix of new and familiar faces, some of whom will benefit politically from the attention, others who are being called forward because their long-ignored issue is finally set to be debated. Here's a quick look at some of the people to watch in the coming weeks and the issues they'll be steering:
Sens. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Dean Heller (R-Nev.): The bipartisan budget deal reached last month failed to extend federal unemployment insurance for about 1.3 million Americans, a big concern for these two senators. Their states, Rhode Island and Nevada, are suffering from the highest rates of unemployment in the nation -- about 9 percent -- and they're taking the lead on extending the program.
The Senate is expected to vote to proceed to final debate on the measure Monday evening and aides to both senators anticipate they will have sufficient Republican support to clear the 60-vote procedural hurdle -- with most of the pressure on Heller to find enough GOP senators to agree to proceed.
The Reed-Heller proposal would cost about $6.5 billion and is designed to serve as a three-month bridge until Congress passes a longer-term extension of the program. The White House has heralded the measure and is expected to devote considerable energy in the coming days to rallying support. But most Republicans are concerned that Reed and Heller haven't offered a proposal to pay for the extension of the program. Democrats say that no "pay for" is needed, because unemployment insurance historically has been treated as emergency spending.
Expect much of the political debate to focus on paying for the extension and not on the merits of providing the unemployed with assistance.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.): They chair the Senate and House appropriations committees and have until next Wednesday to reach agreement on a plan to fund the federal government through the remainder of fiscal 2014. Aides say that they're making good progress on the finer details of the $1.012 trillion agreement. But a blip in the House and Senate calendars might force Congress to pass a short-term stopgap resolution to keep the government running a few extra days if both the House and Senate can't properly debate and pass the omnibus measure in time.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.): Next to the appropriations bill, this is the other major piece of legislation expected to pass the House and Senate in the opening days of 2014. For more than two years, Stabenow and Lucas, who chair the Senate and House agriculture committees, have been working on a new farm bill that sets agricultural policy and provides billions of federal dollars to needy families. The formal announcement of an agreement is expected at some point this week.
Pay special attention in the coming days to how Democrats and Republicans respond to the proposed cuts in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps. House Republicans wanted to eliminate about $40 billion in funding over the next decade, while Senate Democrats wanted about $4 billion in cuts. Negotiators have agreed on about $9 billion in cuts over the next 10 years -- not nearly enough for some Republicans, and likely too much for some Democrats to support. How debate on this high-profile part of the legislation shakes out could be critical.
Reps. Diane Black (R-Tenn.), Kerry Bentivolio (R-Mich.), and Gus Bilirakis (R-Fla.): These three House Republicans are expected to take center stage this week as Republicans once again turn their attention to concerns with the Affordable Care Act. The three have drafted legislation designed to address concerns with the security of HealthCare.gov. Their proposals would provide more user protections to avoid identity theft on the Web site and require the federal government to promptly notify users if there's a security breach involving personal information.
Concerns with personal information on Web sites is fresh in the minds of most Americans -- Hello, Target and Snapchat! -- but the legislation also will continue churning concern and doubts about the ACA as the Obama administration seeks to boost enrollment numbers before a March deadline. House Democrats consider the proposals as more attempts to tear apart the new law, but Democratic aides privately concede that it will be difficult for many Democratic lawmakers to vote against proposals to strengthen the security of the Web site.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.): The Republican leader is making another in a series of public appearances this week tied to his push for education reform. On Wednesday he'll appear at the Brookings Institution to discuss "The Value of School Choice," part of a years-long push to expand access to charter schools, school vouchers and other options. Cantor made a series of appearances last year to push for the reforms, and aides expect him to do much the same in the coming months, especially in the lead-up to the November elections.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.): New York's junior senator is poised to continue fighting for a series of dramatic changes in how the Pentagon handles cases of sexual assault and rape. The Senate is expected to vote at some point in the coming weeks on her proposal to bar military commanders from handling any such cases. At last check, Gillibrand had roughly 53 senators supporting her plan -- but she'll need at least 60 to clear procedural hurdles. Her campaign may ultimately fail, however, as President Obama has ordered a one-year review of how military commanders handle assault and rape cases -- a move that was seen by some as a way to at least delay consideration of Gillibrand's proposal.
Rep. Trey Radel (R-Fla.): He's back! The Florida freshman is scheduled to return to Washington this week only a few short weeks since pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge of cocaine possession and about three weeks at a rehabilitation facility. Radel thus far has enjoyed the support of House GOP leaders, who have not called for him to step down. But GOP activists in Florida want Radel to resign or at least not seek reelection.
This item has been updated at 12:25 p.m.