- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Funding the military, ensuring the jobless don’t run out of unemployment benefits and maintaining the government’s authority to borrow are just a few of the outstanding items as Congress rushes to finish its work in the dwindling days of this year.

With the Senate focused solely on health care legislation and no time left to consider bills separately, several of the most important unfinished issues will be attached to a $626 billion defense-spending bill the House is expected to take up Wednesday.

Those include two-month extensions of several programs set to die at year’s end, among them federal jobless benefits approved as part of the economic stimulus package in February, health insurance subsidies for the unemployed and federal funds for highway and other infrastructure projects.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, at a news conference Tuesday, said the package would also extend for two months several provisions of the anti-terrorism Patriot Act that are set to expire while the two chambers work out issues of surveillance and privacy rights.

A small-business loan program, a satellite-TV distribution law and a measure that temporarily shields doctors from a sharp cut in Medicare payments are also expected to be part of the defense bill, which the Maryland Democrat said he hoped the Senate would accept without modification so it can quickly be sent to President Obama for his signature.

He said the House this week would also approve a stopgap measure to ensure that Pentagon isn’t deprived of funds because of congressional delays in approving the defense bill, a measure to raise the debt ceiling and a jobs stimulation bill costing nearly $75 billion.

The House hopes to adjourn at the end of the week. But Mr. Hoyer acknowledged that the session could spill over into Christmas week, depending on Senate action on the health care overhaul bill.

The Treasury will lose its borrowing authority when the government reaches its current debt limit of $12.1 trillion in the coming days. Democratic leaders had proposed a huge increase of about $1.8 trillion, but ran into trouble from fiscal conservatives in their own party. Senate moderates wanted to tie the ceiling increase to creation of a task force on deficit reduction; House fiscal hawks sought a vote on requiring that any increase in the deficit be offset by new revenues or budget cuts elsewhere.

Mr. Hoyer said the agreement with the Senate called for raising the debt ceiling in excess of a couple hundred billion dollars, lasting about two months.

The jobs bill slated to come up at the end of the week would focus on three areas - infrastructure projects that put people to work, aid to states and local governments to keep people employed, and aid for public sector and public service jobs encouraging the hiring or retention of teachers, first responders or AmeriCorps volunteers.

There is no chance that the Senate will take up a jobs package this year, but with unemployment hovering at 10 percent Democrats were keen on laying down a legislative marker before going home for the holidays.

That busy agenda still fails to deal with some critical issues. The House has voted to keep the current top rate for the estate tax at 45 percent for estates worth more than $3.5 million. Without Senate action, the tax would disappear in 2010 but return in 2011 at a higher rate of 55 percent for estates worth more than $1 million. As of Tuesday, the House and Senate were still discussing what to do about the estate tax and about 30 other business-related tax breaks set to end Dec. 31.

Action on the defense bill would close out the congressional obligation to act on 12 spending, or appropriations, bills to fund federal programs for the budget year that began Oct. 1.

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