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Congress' Hurried Work May Cause Loss of Unemployment Benefits

By David Espo


WASHINGTON -- Barring uncharacteristically swift work by Congress, more than a million victims of the recession will lose long-term unemployment benefits over the holidays, the price of milk could shoot up in late winter and government payments might fall sharply for doctors who treat Medicare patients.

There's more -- much more -- as lawmakers grasp the tail end of a dog of a year.

Federal payments to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands will begin shrinking, at least temporarily, on Jan. 1. Tax breaks will expire temporarily for millions of people in states without an income tax, and also for the relatively few Americans who own racehorses.

They are routine deadlines gone unmet in a year more likely to be remembered for a tea party-inspired partial government shutdown, the stalling of President Barack Obama's agenda, repeated failed Republican attempts to eviscerate the health care law and a successful move by Senate Democrats to limit opposition to White House judicial nominees.

The blame game transcends all.

Republicans have "made good faith, serious efforts to Senate Democrats" to resolve differences on year-end issues, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said recently. "When will they learn to say 'yes' to common ground?"

The House Democratic leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, attacked Republicans for opposing an increase in the minimum wage, voting to cut $40 billion out of food stamps, and seeking reductions in school money and college aid for low-income families.

"I mean, how unconscionable can that be?" she asked at a meeting scripted to build support for extending unemployment benefits.

A much-ballyhooed year-end stab at bipartisanship is designed chiefly to ease the impact of across-the-board spending cuts that resulted from an earlier episode of gridlock.

Even a compromise probably would face strong opposition from tea party-aligned conservatives in the House whose tactics have opened a deep divide within the GOP.

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% 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.

If the prospect is for a one-month extension of farm programs, there has been virtually no public discussion about the dozens of tax provisions due to expire at year's end.

Some originally were placed into law only temporarily to mask their true impact on the deficit. Now, they are renewed periodically, and temporarily, because the cost of permanent extensions could be prohibitive.

Among the more obscure is a provision that allocates to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands the proceeds of a $13.25-per-gallon federal excise tax on imported rum. Without action by Congress, the amount to be turned over would fall to $10.50 per gallon.

Other items allow racehorse owners to write off their investments relatively quickly, and permit residents in nine states that have no income tax to claim a federal deduction for the state sales tax they pay.

Concern over milk prices, tax breaks and payments to doctors all cross party lines.

Not so unemployment benefits, a Democratic priority.

"I don't see much appetite on our side for continuing this extension of benefits," Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., told reporters.

Obama and Democrats do.

Benefits for 1.3 million workers unemployed for longer than six months expire Dec. 28, and that would be the case for 1.9 million more people in the first half of next year.

Boehner said he was waiting to review any proposal the White House would like to make. Pelosi announced that an extension would be a requirement for House Democrats to vote in favor of a budget deal.

Then there's the annual defense bill, which has passed Congress like clockwork each year since John F. Kennedy was in the White House.

This time, it's mission not yet accomplished.

Copyright 2013 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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