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Analysis: Dog of year in Congress whimpers to end

Whatever the deal might be, Milton Wolf, a tea party-backed primary challenger to Republican Sen. Pat Roberts in Kansas, is against it.

It will "raise spending levels by billions of dollars and continue to provide funding for Obamacare," he said in a statement.

He's right that the health care law would survive because most Republicans have no interest in reprising a partial government shutdown that sent the party's approval ratings plummeting this fall.

But there is no deal yet, and officials in both parties say Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the chief Republican negotiator, is insisting that any eventual agreement push deficits lower than they would be if across-the-board cuts were left untouched.

With the House on track to adjourn for the year at the end of this coming week and the Senate hoping to file out a week later, much attention is focused on the talks between Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

But what might emerge from those discussions isn't expected to address a stack of routine unfinished business, some of which probably will carry over into 2014.

Lawmakers are at work drafting a three-month measure to prevent a 24 percent drop in Medicare payments to doctors, the residue of an ambitious plan for a permanent overhaul of the entire system. The cost is estimated at about $8 billion.

A similar extension, perhaps for as little as one month, is the alternative to a milk price fiasco.

The issue is hostage to a far broader disagreement about legislation to set spending levels for farm and feeding programs. A House measure that passed on a party-line vote calls for food stamp cuts totaling $40 billion over a decade. A Senate version, passed with bipartisan support, envisions reductions of $4 billion.

Failure to resolve the broader issues would return the nation to a Depression-era dairy law and set in motion a chain of events that would potentially quadruple the price of a gallon of milk.

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