Lawmakers said they made "great progress" toward reaching a farm bill deal in a meeting Wednesday morning as they push toward a final agreement that could be a year-end bright spot for an otherwise unproductive Congress.
As the clock ticks down to Congress' year-end break, many crucial bills — including a 2014 budget, a defense policy bill, an extension of emergency unemployment benefits and enhanced payments to doctors who treat Medicare patients — are still works in progress, bogged down by partisan disputes, chiefly over spending.
The farm bill, which is already years overdue, could be one point of bipartisan cooperation.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, Michigan Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, emerged from a meeting with the other three top negotiators Wednesday to say they are moving.
"The staff are doing some work on specifics and scores and so on, but we're making great progress," she said.
Commodity payments to farmers and cuts to food stamps have been areas of disagreement between the Senate and House versions of the bill. Ms. Stabenow declined to address specific areas where the group was able to compromise in the meeting, saying only that everything had been discussed.
"We are coming closer on every part of the bill," she said.
When asked whether the negotiators could complete a bill before the end of the year, Ms. Stabenow said only "we're going to get this done as quickly as possible."
With so few accomplishments for this Congress, all sides are already laying blame.
House Speaker John A. Boehner took to his chamber's floor Wednesday to say Senate Democrats have been the blockade, pointing to nearly 150 bills he said the House has passed but the Senate has not acted on.
Among those were legislation to build the Keystone XL pipeline, streamline the Education Department and repeal all or parts of Obamacare.
"Every single one of these bills was blocked by Washington Democrats. The Senate and the president continue to stand in the way of the American people's priorities," Mr. Boehner said.
With just 56 bills signed into law so far this year, Congress is on track for the least-productive session on record. The previous low was 2011, when 80 bills were voted into law.
Mr. Boehner said his negotiators have made offers on both the farm bill and the 2014 budget, but weren't getting cooperation of Democrats.
Ms. Stabenow said Mr. Boehner's criticism doesn't help to get anything done.
Those are "not productive comments," Ms. Stabenow. "We're going to just work together on a bipartisan basis and get things done."
Other critical pieces of legislation are also facing a time crunch. The budget conference committee, which has not met formally since mid-November, is facing a Dec. 13 deadline to present a budget blueprint to the appropriations committees. The negotiators already missed a Dec. 2 deadline set by appropriators to allow ample time to write individual spending bills.
A spokesman for Rep. Paul Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, said no public meetings are scheduled with the entire committee, but conversations with Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, Washington Democrat, are continuing.
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