Congress’ Year-End List of Unfinished Business Likely to Remain Long

– Congress’ to-do list for the rest of the year has it all: billions of budget dollars. Farm policy. Jobless benefits. National defense. The next Federal Reserve chairman.

But this is a largely do-nothing Congress, so most of those tasks might go undone in these last days of the 2013 legislative session.

After all, “Congress is deeply, deeply broken,” said Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar and congressional expert at the American Enterprise Institute, a center-right research group.

To illustrate the point: Only the House of Representatives was in session this week, and Republicans and Democrats spent much of their time pointing fingers. The Senate will return Monday for two weeks. The House plans to leave for the year next Friday.

“This session of Congress may prove to be the least productive in perhaps over a half a century,” said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md.

His charge provoked a brief defense on the House floor from Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who methodically ticked off all the legislation the House has passed – and the Senate has ignored or killed.

The tension is likely to ratchet up further next week. The Senate will meet for the first time since Democrats changed debate rules for considering certain presidential nominees, the so-called “nuclear option.” The extraordinary Senate maneuver, which permits debate to be limited by 51 votes in many cases instead of 60, has infuriated Republicans.

The Senate might very well do little else the rest of this year other than consider major White House appointments. Likely to be debated are more federal appellate court judges and Federal Reserve Vice Chairman Janet Yellen as Fed chairman, Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., as the head of the Federal Housing Finance Agency and Jeh Johnson as the secretary of homeland security. Watt is likely to come up first, probably sometime next week.

Though Democrats control 55 of the Senate’s 100 seats, Republicans still could create enough procedural hurdles so that little gets done beyond considering nominees. The Watt debate could still last eight hours, while other nominations could take as much as 30 hours each. Republicans aren’t disclosing their strategy.

But they face a problem if they look obstructionist. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke’s term ends Jan. 31. Do Republicans want to be blamed for leaving the seat vacant? Johnson would head the agency that’s charged with combating terrorism, and the Senate homeland security committee approved his nomination last month by a voice vote.

Here are the some of the tougher agenda items Congress is likely to face the rest of this year:

– Watt. Senate Republicans blocked consideration of his nomination in October to head the agency that oversees mortgage finance titans Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Republicans contend that Watt, a 19-year House veteran, has backed lower standards for obtaining mortgages, which helped spur the government takeover of the quasi-government agencies. They also want someone with more experience in the housing finance field.

Watt’s nomination might proceed, though, because of the new 51-vote threshold for limiting debate. In October, 56 senators voted against a potential filibuster.

– Budget deal. Those close to the talks are cautiously optimistic about a deal. Negotiators are eyeing an approximately $1 trillion annual blueprint for discretionary spending – the amount under Congress’ control. The two chambers might vote on the guidelines before leaving, and their appropriations committees then would come up with details of how the money would be spent.

Those details could then be ready for votes before current government funding expires Jan. 15. So far, there’s little appetite for another shutdown.

– Farm bill. Legislation to set agriculture – and nutrition assistance – policy has been stalled for months. The deadlock shows signs of easing, as lawmakers have been discussing how much to cut the nutrition aid programs. But the philosophical barriers will be difficult to overcome.

“The House has a big problem with able-bodied people receiving food stamps,” argued Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., a senior Appropriations Committee member.

Democrats counter that such aid is crucial for those who need it most. A key clue as to progress will be whether negotiators seek to extend the current law on a short-term basis, giving them more time to craft a compromise.

– Unemployment insurance. The program that provides emergency benefits to 1.3 million people expires Dec. 28. Conservatives tend to think that extra weeks of benefits discourage people from seeking work. Democrats argue that not doing so hurts the most vulnerable.

“They need to be asked do they really want 1.3 million people out in the cold with all their children on Dec. 29,” said Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan, the top House Ways and Means Committee Democrat.

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., an adviser to Boehner, isn’t buying it: “The unemployment rate is coming down, and the Republican position all along is we have to go back to normal at some point.”

The extension is a White House priority, and Boehner wouldn’t rule out a last-minute deal. “If the president has a plan for extending unemployment, I’ll look at it,” he said.

– Defense. The mammoth bill spelling out defense policy has been hamstrung by lawmakers eager to amend the measure. The Senate debated the bill last month and a floor update is scheduled Monday. Progress has been stymied by a host of issues, including disagreements over measures to toughen provisions regarding sexual assault in the military.

Complicating consideration this month is a push by some members of Congress to back tougher sanctions against Iran – tougher than the White House wants at the moment.

Democrats might be reluctant to have that debate on the Senate floor the month after the administration announced a six-month deal with the Iranians to ease some sanctions in exchange for limits on Iran’s nuclear program.