Congress to take up a stopgap spending bill

Action needed as legislature returns from break for a shortened session

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With a “fiscal cliff” looming less than four months away, Congress ended its five-week summer break Monday and got back to work — though lawmakers aren’t expected to solve the budget crisis or any other sticky issues before leaving town again.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, on Monday promised the current work session in his chamber will be “very short and compact.”

The fiscal year ends this month, but Congress againhas passed none of its annual spending bills, forcing lawmakers to instead take up a stopgap measure this week to avoid a shutdown of government agencies at the beginning of October.

The House is expected to vote on a six-month temporary funding bill this week, with the Senate likely to follow suit next week. The move would allow lawmakers to return home to campaign after only a couple of weeks in Washington. And with the “continuing resolution” lasting until March 27, it would help incumbents deflect — at least a bit — the politically toxic issue of government spending.

House and Senate leaders reached a tentative deal on the continuing resolution in July before leaving Washington for their break, with discretionary spending based on the $1.047 trillion cap set by last summer’s debt limit agreement. Mr. Reid said it has the White House’s blessing.

Republicans initially wanted a lower spending level but approved the compromise after Democrats agreed to keep the bill largely free of extraneous spending projects that often clutter stopgap spending bills.

House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, California Republican, said Monday he expects the measure to pass his chamber with bipartisan support, and that it will clear the Senate as well.

Mr. McCarthy also predicted House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin — GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s running mate — will support the measure even though its spending level exceeds the $1.028 trillion in discretionary spending called for in Mr. Ryan’s proposed 2013 budget.

While the stopgap funding bill is Congress‘ most pressing task, a few other pending legislative matters face end-of-month deadline, including a new “farm bill” to pay for agriculture-related subsides.

A short-term farm bill — possibly for six months — is being considered after negotiations broke down in the House on a multi-year version. The bill could be included as part of the overall continuing resolution funding bill.

A major sticking point slowing progress on the agriculture measure has been a debate regarding cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — commonly called food stamps — which typically is included in the farm bill.

Another measure that could be added to the stopgap bill is the reauthorization of Clinton administration-era welfare system overhauls that expire at the end of the month. While the reforms likely will be extended, Republicans may use the opportunity to raise concerns about the Obama administration’s recent decision to allow states to seek waivers from the work requirements of a main welfare initiative, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

The House also may take up a bill this week calling for the reauthorization of expiring provisions in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, a key anti-terrorism tool established in 1978 that allows U.S. intelligence agencies to conduct physical and electronic surveillance of terrorist suspects. Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. says reauthorizing FISA is among his top legislative priorities.

Leaders on both sides of the Capitol are eager to avoid the more than $500 billion in defense-related “sequester” cuts scheduled to kick in early next year— cuts agreed to as part of last summer’s bipartisan debt and budget agreement that allowed the White House to raise the debt ceiling.

Still, not many in Congress have the political stomach to take up that issue, or the issue of what to do with more than $500 billion in pending sequester cuts to domestic programs, before their next expected break later this month.

Instead, congressional leaders are likely to punt both matters entirely until after the November elections.

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