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Washington Week: How Much Can Congress Do Before Christmas?

December 5, 2011 - 6:00pm

The House of Representatives and Senate will start this week off slow so members of Congress can prepare to attend the annual Christmas Ball at the White House Monday night.

This holiday event is one of the most coveted invitations in Washington at Christmas time, so expect a quorum of Senators and House members to be present at this traditional holiday Christmas celebration.

The House will be considering parks and lands bills early this week while the rest of the week will be dominated by leadership meetings in an effort to negotiate the text of the stopgap appropriations/spending bill which expires Dec. 16. This bill is expected to carry not only the appropriations spending levels to fund our federal government for the next several months, but also could contain any or all of the following:

-- Extending the 2 percent tax payroll holiday.
-- Extending unemployment insurance benefits.
-- Alternative minimum tax patch.
-- Sixty-plus other provisions that expire Dec. 31. Some of these include:

  • State and local tax deductions.
  • Deductions for teachers classroom supplies.
  • Research and development tax credits.
  • Tax credits for biodiesel and ethanol.

At noon on Tuesday, the Senate will conduct a procedural vote to decide whether senators want to vote to confirm Caitlin Halligan to be a U.S. circuit judge for the D.C. Circuit. Also, the Senate could conduct a similar procedural vote with respect to the nomination of Richard Cordray, to be the director of the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection. In May, 45 senators sent a letter to the White House stating that they would vote against any CFPB nominee unless structural changes were made to the bureau, including replacing the director with a board and making the agency more accountable and transparent. This nominee will head this new government agency which was created in the Dodd/Frank financial reform bill passed last year.

The Senate could also resume the Energy and Water Appropriations bill if an agreement can be reached to limit the amendments offered during floor debate. This bill was laid aside while the Senate completed action on the Defense Authorization bill for fiscal year 2012. This bill, S 1867, passed last week by a vote of 93-7 after senators agreed to compromise language regarding the issue of detainee rights. The House passed its version of the defense authorization bill, HR 1540, last May by a vote of 322-96. This must-pass authorization bill now faces a conference committee process, whereby members of the House and Senate meet so that they can iron out the language differences between the two houses.

The fate of the 2 percent payroll tax holiday was tested last week in the Senate when the Democrats and Republicans offered competing proposals to extend the tax provision. Both proposals failed in the Senate. The two proposals used entirely different offsets to pay for the price tag accompanying the tax break.The Senate Budget Committee chairman, Kent Conrad, D-S.D., said on the Sunday morning TV show Fox News Sunday that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., would offer a new tax holiday proposal on Monday in an effort to try again to extend the tax holiday. The hope is that this new text will garner enough support to pass the Senate by midweek.

Some House fiscal conservatives have told Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, that they dont want to vote to extend the 2 percent tax payroll holiday until Congress tackles entitlement reform.

Stay tuned to see how much of this must-pass legislation starts making its way through the House and Senate this week.

Elizabeth B. Letchworth is a retired, elected United States Senate secretary for the majority and minority. Currently she is a senior legislative adviser for Covington & Burling, LLC and is the founder of (

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