Back from vacation, Congress focuses on unemployment, Obamacare

After over two weeks away for the holidays, President Obama is back at the White House and the House and Senate return to the Capitol this week. They’ll have just months to work on the full slate of issues facing them before attention turns to the 2014 midterm elections and the already unproductive legislative branch slows to a crawl.

The Senate is back first, on Monday, with two planned votes. The most high-profile and contentious issue is whether Congress will extend emergency unemployment benefits, which expired on Dec. 28. Monday’s vote is a procedural measure that will require the support of 60 lawmakers to prevent a filibuster.

 On CBS’ “Face the Nation” Sunday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., implored Republicans in Congress to follow the lead of Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., who is co-sponsoring a measure with Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., to extend the benefits for three months.

"Dean Heller's not some maverick that's out there spewing socialism,” Reid said. “He’s a guy who is really a conservative person and he wants to extend unemployment benefits. I admire him. Can’t we get four Republicans to agree with the American people that we should do that? I would certainly hope so.”

But many Republicans oppose the idea of extending the Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) program – which would cost upward of $25 billion over the next year, according to a Congressional Budget Office estimate – without identifying savings to pay for it, or adding any additional measures that would spur job growth.

“I think it's wrong to borrow money from China or simply to print up money for it. But I'm not against having unemployment insurance. I do think, though, that the longer you have it, that it provides some disincentive to work, and that there are many studies that indicate this,” said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., on ABC’s “This Week.”

“What I would like to do, when we get back, is one, if we extend it, we pay for it. But, two, we add something to it that would create jobs,” Paul said.

Even if the Senate ultimately passes the Reed-Heller bill, it is unclear how the House would respond, if at all. 

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has said the onus is on Mr. Obama to come up with a way to pay for the extension of the benefits. Two House Republicans who also appeared on “Face the Nation,” Reps. Matt Salmon of Arizona, and Peter King of New York echoed Paul’s demand that benefits be fully paid for or passed with some job creation measures, respectively.

Mr. Obama is set to address the issue in a speech Tuesday, where he will be accompanied by a few of the 1.3 million Americans who lost their benefits on Dec. 28. If Congress takes no action, an additional 1.9 million would face the same fate over the course of 2014.

The other Senate vote Monday is expected to confirm Janet Yellen to be the next chair of the Federal Reserve and the first woman to hold the job. She cleared a test vote with the support of 59 senators before the break, indicating that she will be confirmed to the position (which only requires a simple majority).

There is a big year ahead for the U.S. central bank, which announced last month that it would begin gradually slowing the amount of monetary support it gives to the U.S. economy.

The House will return on Tuesday, and Republicans are expected to attempt to keep the focus on the Affordable Care Act. Last week, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., sent a memo to the conference saying he planned to schedule a vote this week on Republican-authored legislation to addressing data breaches and security.

Coverage began on Jan. 1 for those who signed up for plans on the federal exchanges by Dec. 24. More than 2.1 million had signed up for insurance under the law by Dec. 28, the administration said. The White House has begun soliciting success stories from Americans who have signed up for coverage under the law, in an attempt to turn around the stream of bad press that surrounded the botched rollout of

While Republicans see a continuing focus on Obamacare as a winning strategy in 2014, there are other major issues Congress must address upon its return. Lawmakers must finish writing and pass appropriations bills before government funding runs out on Jan. 15 in order to avert another government shutdown. House and Senate negotiators are still working on final versions of the farm bill and the Water Resources Reform and Development Act.

Mr. Obama, who returned from his annual vacation in Hawaii Sunday, will be preparing for his detailed reaction to a presidential task force's recommended changes to how the National Security Agency does its work, in light of last year's revelations of broad government snooping.

The president will also be preparing for his State of the Union address, scheduled for Jan. 28. He is expected to focus heavily on the twin problems of income equality and declining upward mobility, following a

Democrats, in an effort to stay away from some of the bad press from Obamacare and position themselves for the upcoming election, will likely focus on similar issues in 2014. Raising the minimum wage has been identified as a goal by both the president and Senate Democrats in the coming year.

In the coming weeks, Congress will also face a debate over the country's debt limit, which Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and President Obama argue must be lifted by February. The issue has sparked vicious fights between Democrats and Republicans in recent years, most recently during the 16-day government shutdown, as Republicans seek additional spending cuts and Democrats resist any conditions to extending the country’s borrowing authority. The president has already reiterated his position that he will not negotiate on the issue, and Republicans are still figuring out their strategy.

“We’ll deal with the debt ceiling when we get there,” Boehner said last month.

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for