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Why Congress, just one week into the new year, is already running behind

Francine KieferThe Christian Science Monitor

Members of Congress may lament or criticize December’s disappointing jobs report – a dismal 74,000 new hires last month. One way they could boost the numbers would be to offer some degree of certainty that Washington can function. Businesses crave certainty, but that assurance was in scant supply in lawmakers’ first week on the job after the holidays.

While Congress ended last year on a high note, breaking for Christmas with a budget agreement, it has started the new year decidedly off key. Because of the midterm congressional elections in November, the window of opportunity to get things done in Washington is not as wide as it otherwise might be. Time is of the essence and important deadlines are fast approaching – if not already missed.

Take the renewal of unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless. That deadline expired on Dec. 28, and 1.3 million Americans suddenly lost their extended benefits (payments of roughly $300 a month that generally kick in after 26 months of initial benefits run out). Senate Democrats and one Republican began the week supporting a three-month emergency extension of the benefits. Hope rose when six Republicans helped clear a legislative hurdle to debate the bill. It swelled further when Senate Democrats signaled they were open to paying for and even restructuring the benefits – as Republicans demanded.

But then a chill swept into the chamber that rattled Republicans like an Arctic vortex. While Senate majority leader Harry Reid did find a way to pay for and change the benefits, it was done – so the GOP complained – without proper consultation, without the opportunity for Republican amendments, and with gimmicky future savings 10 years out. At the week's end, a vote was kicked over to Monday.

Reid has continued to talk with Republicans and his spokesman said Friday that he’s now open to “a reasonable number of relevant amendments from Republicans." But if no agreement is reached, Republicans can still kill the extension of jobless benefits with procedural maneuvers.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday (Jan. 15) the federal government runs out of money. Americans may have thought a government shutdown had been averted with December’s budget deal and they were right, with an important caveat. While holiday revelers savored Christmas cookies and rung in 2014, the people who figure out how budget money actually gets spent – the appropriators – were counting beans and distributing them under the Capitol dome. Congress may have approved a framework for the budget last year, but it still needs to pass an actual spending bill by Jan. 15.

The appropriators were hoping to finish this week, but they hit some roadblocks. Just as longtime complaints about fairness and procedure bogged down the Senate, hot-button issues tripped up the appropriators. Disputes reportedly broke out over the funding of the Affordable Care Act, abortion policy, and the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulation of carbon dioxide emissions.

Now it looks like the $1.012 trillion spending bill, called an omnibus because it rolls all 12 annual spending bills into one lumbering vehicle, will make it to the House floor next week, after all. But Congress will have to pass a tiny three-day extension of government funding to accommodate the Senate’s processing of the bill by week’s end. That’s the plan, but still, anything can happen, especially when feelings – or ideology – take a beating.

Another important deadline – the need to raise the federal debt ceiling – is approaching. The Treasury says it will have to raise America’s debt limit by early March, at the latest. Republicans, as in the past, say they won’t lift the ceiling without getting something in return. President Obama says he won't negotiate with the Congress over money that Congress has already spent. A failure to raise the debt ceiling, viewed by economists as even more threatening than a government shutdown, risks another downgrade of the US credit rating and even default on the national debt.

On a hopeful note, an agreed jobs booster – immigration reform – may still be doable this year. House majority leader Eric Cantor (R) of Virginia said Friday that Republicans would release a list of immigration “principles” to talk over with the White House in the “near future.” The aim is to find areas of agreement, Mr. Cantor said.