Senate faces difficult work on budget, farm bill, defense spending

The Senate faces a mountain of work in the two weeks it has left in session this year.

The Senate returns from a two-week Thanksgiving recess Monday facing a growing pile of work to wrap up before the end of the year and just two weeks to get it all done before lawmakers head home for Christmas.

 House and Senate negotiators are still working out a deal on the farm bill, which outlines agricultural policy and funds food stamps. A different set of lawmakers are working on a budget deal to fund the government, facing a congressionally-mandated deadline of this Friday, Dec. 13. And the Senate left for Thanksgiving without reauthorizing the National Defense Authorization Act, which sets defense spending policy and priorities.

This last fact was not lost on House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who last week chided his Democratic counterparts. “The House has done more than half the appropriation bills. The Senate has done none. Alright? The House has done its work on the National Defense Authorization bill. We did it in June. Yet the Senate has failed to act,” Boehner said.

“The House continues to do its job, it’s time for the Senate to get serious about doing theirs.” 

While the Senate is planning on abandoning D.C. for the year on Dec. 20, Boehner has said, in on uncertain terms, that the House is leaving Washington this Friday.

He’s not optimistic about everything getting done in that time frame.Boehner has suggested the farm bill be extended to January to allow negotiators more time to come to a deal, saying he hadn’t “seen any progress” on the farm bill. Just a day earlier, Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.,  and House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., both hailed the “great progress” made during talks last week. 

“We made great progress. We have more progress to make,” Lucas said. “Let us keep working.”

The House and Senate began especially far apart on the issue of food stamps, with the Senate proposing just $4 billion in cuts to the program and the House seeking $40 billion. They will also need to resolve various commodity subsidies, which spurs a flurry of activity from lobbyists.

In addition to the farm bill, House and Senate Budget Committee chiefsRep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., are trying tobridge the $91 billion divide between the two chambers’ budget proposals to set a budget for the next year. If they don’t, the government could face another shutdown in mid-January.

There was no deal when lawmakers went home for the weekend, butnews reports indicated they were closer to a deal that would replace the sequester with a combination of other spending cuts and new revenue through fee increases.

“I’m hopeful that even by the end of this week we’ll be able to come together and achieve that,” Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said on ABC’s “This Week” Sunday.

“The key is that we not have another government shutdown, that we do keep the spending caps in place, that we don’t raise taxes at a time when the economy is still weak,” added Portman, who is a member of the joint committee negotiating the deal. “And I think we can accomplish that over the next couple of days.”

But the long-term look increasingly likely to get left out in the cold when emergency unemployment benefits run out just three days after Christmas. The budget negotiations were seen as a place where the benefits could be renewed, but Republicans have voiced opposition to doing so and Democrats have moved off their demands that the program be wrapped into these talks. 

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Thursdayunemployment insurance could be “separate” from a budget deal, even after saying just Democrats could not support a budget agreement without it.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the second-highest ranking Senate Democrat, indicated his colleagues would follow House Democrats’ lead. ““I don’t think we’ve reached that point where we’ve said, ‘This is it, take it or leave it,’” Durbin said in reference to the unemployment insurance on “This Week.”

“Negotiations are making progress, moving in the right direction,” he said. 

Including benefits in the budget talks would likely stir Republican opposition that could sink a deal.

"When you allow people to be on unemployment insurance for 99 weeks, you're causing them to become part of this perpetual unemployed group in our economy," Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said on "Fox News Sunday." 

He said he supported the benefits up to their current 26 weeks, but that extending them would “do a disservice” to the unemployed. 

And Boehner said on Friday that the latest jobs report "should discourage calls for more emergency government 'stimulus’” because the unemployment rate fell to 7 percent, the lowest number in five years.

The other outstanding item facing the Senate is the defense bill, whichstalled before the Thanksgiving recess over the number of amendments lawmakers would be allowed to offer. Beyond that issue, though, lawmakers remain divided over the best way to reform the process of prosecuting sexual assault in the military. The fight has that has pitted two of the Senate's Democratic women, Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Claire McCaskill of Missouri, against each other.

Gillibrand is leading the charge to put the decision to prosecute sexual assault into the hands of military lawyers, while McCaskill would make other reforms but leave the decision to prosecute an assault within the chain of command. Gillibrand rounded up at least 50 supporters before the break, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., but will need 60 votes to guarantee passage. Meanwhile, McCaskill has the backing of Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., and top brass at the Pentagon.

The chairmen of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., and Levin, have both said that they think the bill will get done before the end of the year.

The list of ongoing work doesn’t even include the possibility of the Senate passing further sanctions on Iran. The White House has pushed back cagainst the possibility, since it might undermine a temporary deal between the U.S., other world powers and Iran to curb Iran’s nuclear program.

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for