The House launched a frenetic day of legislating Wednesday, seeking to wrap up such end-of-session tasks as financing the military, helping the jobless and permitting the government to run up more debt.
Lawmakers, with one eye on the door, plan to conclude the day with a vote on a $154 billion jobs bill combining help for state and local governments with spending on infrastructure and extended benefits for the jobless. Half of that measure is paid for with unused money from the Wall Street bailout.
While House members look to vacations and trips to Copenhagen for the climate summit, the Senate is likely to work into Christmas week as Democrats make their final push to pass a health care overhaul bill.
The Senate won't take up the jobs bill until next year and much of Wednesday's House action would simply postpone until early next year a host of difficult issues, such as long-term financing of highway and other infrastructure projects and dealing with controversies surrounding the anti-terror USA Patriot Act.
An exception is the $636 billion Pentagon budget bill, which has been held back to serve as a locomotive to tug a bunch of unrelated provisions into law as Congress rushes to finish its work in the dwindling days of this year.
Other measures to be included in the defense bill include two-month extensions of federal jobless benefits approved as part of the economic stimulus package in February, health insurance subsidies for the unemployed and several provisions of the Patriot Act that are set to expire.
The spate of two-month extensions is required because the House and Senate have simply run out of time to iron out Congress' typical flood of year-end business, as the notoriously balky Senate is tied up with the health care overhaul bill.
"In a world of alternatives, that's the one we have," said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., acknowledging that the need to revisit so many controversial items early next year will be a huge headache for Democrats, who control Congress.
Particularly troublesome is must-pass legislation to make sure the government doesn't default on its obligations when it hits its $12.1 trillion limit on borrowing in the coming days. A $200 billion-plus extension is required, Hoyer said.
Plans for a far bigger increase in the federal debt limit that would have ensured lawmakers didn't have to vote on it before next year's midterm elections fell through.
Democratic leaders had proposed a huge increase of about $1.8 trillion, but ran into trouble from fiscal conservatives in their own party, particularly Senate moderates who wanted to tie the ceiling increase to creation of a task force on deficit reduction.
Hoyer also said the House will approve a stopgap measure to ensure that the Pentagon isn't deprived of money because of congressional delays in approving the defense bill.
House action on all those bills would conclude its major tasks for the year. It still would have to wait for the Senate, where debate could spill over into Christmas week, depending on Senate action on the health care bill.
A host of tax issues would be ignored entirely, including action to prevent the estate tax from expiring Jan. 1. The tax is set to disappear in 2010 but return in 2011 at a rate of 55 percent for estates over $1 million. Also off the agenda is the extension of about 30 business-related tax breaks that will end Dec. 31.
It's expected that Congress will have to act retroactively to address these tax issues next year.
Action on the defense bill would close out congressional action on 12 spending bills to fund agency operating budgets for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.
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