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Congress' to-do list? More like a 'might-do' list

Before popping open the Champagne on New Year’s Eve, members of Congress have some legislative tasks they need to address, or at least want to address. Here’s a list of still-unfinished legislative agenda items for the waning days of 2013:

A budget plan

The chairmen of the House and Senate budget committees -- Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan and Washington Democratic Sen. Patty Murray -- have been discussing a blueprint for the current fiscal year, which began on Oct. 1.

As part of the deal that ended the 16-day government shutdown in October, congressional leaders agreed to set a deadline of Dec. 13 for Ryan and Murray to devise a fiscal plan for FY 2014.

But Dec. 13 isn’t a hard deadline; it’s more of an aspiration.

In reality, the funding for about 36 percent of all federal spending (non-entitlement spending) doesn’t expire until Jan. 15. Congress needs to pass some sort of stop-gap funding bill prior to that date. Even if it fails to pass one, the other 64 percent of federal spending will continue.

Ryan said last week that however the budget problem gets resolved, there won’t be another government shutdown. Ryan said he and Murray will either come up a budget plan or “we just have what we call a continuing resolution that just keeps (spending) going. Either one of those two scenarios will prevail.”

He added that Republicans are willing to trade the “across-the-board and crude” spending cuts in the ongoing sequester for “smarter spending cuts” in entitlement spending.

“That’s what we’re discussing right now ... . Patty and I are in continual conversation. We have made progress,” Ryan said, but he indicated that a deal was still not in sight.

And he ruled out tax increases -- a Democratic goal -- as part of a deal, potentially hindering an agreement.

Budget experts say a Ryan-Murray deal would be a very healthy thing for the government’s finances.

“The most pressing issue on Congress’ plate in the remainder of this year is finding a way to replace some of the sequester with permanent savings,” said Loren Adler, research director for the Committee for A Responsible Federal Budget.

“Doing so would boost the economy, improve our long-term fiscal picture, and finally give appropriators top-line numbers with time to actually make decisions about funding priorities.”

Expiring tax provisions

More than 60 tax provisions that benefit both corporations and individuals expire at year’s end.

At stake is everything from the deduction for state and local sales taxes to tax incentives for bio-diesel fuel.

But as with the budget plan, this tax deadline, too, is not truly a drop-dead date. In the past, Congress has retroactively kept some of these tax breaks alive and it could do so again by passing legislation in 2014.

Medicare reimbursement for doctors

If you are an older American on Medicare, the payments that the government sends to your doctor will be sharply cut if Congress doesn't act by the end of the year.

Medicare’s payments for physicians’ services are governed by a provision in the law called the “sustainable growth rate” -- which stemmed from an attempt under the 1997 budget law to curb growth in Medicare spending.

Payment rates for doctors will be reduced by nearly 25 percent in January. These are the accumulated cuts which Congress postponed in prior years.

Since 2003, a series of short-term “patches” -- which averted cuts but didn't permanently repeal them -- has been Congress’ way of coping with the issue.

The American Medical Association has been lobbying to persuade Congress to replace the sustainable growth rate. The leaders of both the Senate and House committees with jurisdiction over Medicare have agreed on a basic approach of how to do that. But another year-ending “patch” is also a possibility.

Unemployment insurance

Unless Congress keeps it alive, an emergency unemployment compensation program which President George W. Bush signed into law in 2008 will expire on Dec. 28. That would leave about 1.3 million unemployed people without benefits.

The program covers people who have exhausted their benefits under their state’s regular unemployment benefits program. Benefits are available for 26 weeks in most states, but some states offer fewer weeks.

The emergency program provides between 20 weeks and 47 weeks of additional benefits, depending on the unemployment rate in the state where the jobless person lives.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 4 million of the nation’s 11.3 million unemployed people have been searching for a job and unable to find one for 27 weeks or more.


'Do-nothing' Congress on track for one of the least productive years ever