WASHINGTON, Jan 5 (Reuters) - The U.S. Congress begins its legislative year on Monday with an emphasis on economic and fiscal affairs, including legislation to fund the government beyond Jan. 15 and the likely confirmation of Janet Yellen as the first woman to head the Federal Reserve.
Plenty of other issues also will compete for attention. But with members of Congress jockeying for position in advance of the November elections, it will be difficult for them to avoid the partisanship that marked last year’s session and find common ground to do much of anything in the new year.
As a result, the Democrat-controlled Senate and Republican-controlled House of Representatives may be hard-pressed to do much beyond funding the government and raising the U.S. debt ceiling.
Here are the top issues facing Congress this year:
Just hours after the Senate begins its work on Monday, it is expected to confirm Janet Yellen as the first woman chair of the Federal Reserve. As vice chair since 2010, Yellen has been an unwavering advocate of the central bank’s aggressive steps to boost the U.S. economy. She will succeed Ben Bernanke, whose term comes to a close at the end of the month.
Senate Democrats also kick off a bid on Monday to restore long-term jobless benefits for 1.3 million Americans. The benefits expired on Dec. 28 after efforts came up short to include them in a bipartisan, end-of-year budget deal.
Many Republicans oppose an extension, arguing it would be a disincentive to find work. Democrats say relief is a moral imperative and would boost spending cuts elsewhere to help cover the cost.
Congress faces a Jan. 15 deadline to pass a massive appropriations bill to keep federal agencies operating. It is expected to do so largely because failure would set the stage for something neither party wants: a government shutdown.
The bipartisan budget deal enacted last month set overall spending levels for the rest of this fiscal year, which ends on Sept. 30, as well for the following year.
House and Senate aides are working to divide up $1.012 trillion for the current fiscal year, which will ease automatic across-the-board spending cuts.
House Republicans and Senate Democrats are headed for another fight over the U.S. debt limit. President Barack Obama and his fellow Democrats insist that the borrowing cap must be increased without new conditions being attached. Republicans have warned that they will be looking for something in return for adding to the $17.2 trillion national debt.
But there appears to be little appetite for going to the brink of a historic government default when Treasury Department borrowing authority runs out, possibly in early March.
Democrats seem certain to fail in yet another major initiative - this one to increase the federal minimum wage. But they are expected to use the issue to rally their core supporters on election day. Polls show most Americans favor an increase in the minimum wage, which has stood at $7.25 an hour since July 2009.
Democrats say an increase is needed to help curb the growing gap between rich and poor. Republicans oppose an increase, saying it would cost jobs. A White House-backed bill would increase the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour over three years and index it to inflation in the future.
House Speaker John Boehner says he remains committed to revamping the nation’s immigration laws, but whether he and his fellow Republicans will find enough support is unclear.
Boehner rejects the bipartisan comprehensive bill passed by the Senate last year and instead favors a step-by-step approach.
The biggest stumbling block appears to be the pathway to citizenship sought by the Senate for an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. House Republicans call the pathway “amnesty for lawbreakers.”
Almost 60 U.S. tax code provisions expired on Dec. 31. Known collectively as “tax extenders,” they include business tax breaks such as the research-and-development credit and bonus depreciation, as well as items for individuals, such as a deduction for qualified college tuition.
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid has introduced legislation to renew these tax breaks, but it has a long way to go through the legislative process.
Although Congress overwhelmingly approved a two-year budget deal, members of both parties want to revise a provision that would achieve $6 billion in savings over 10 years by trimming pension benefits for working-age military retirees.
Starting in 2015, these retirees under age 62 will see slightly lower cost-of-living adjustments and some critics complain the change would even apply to disabled veterans - something that congressional negotiators did not intend. Expect disabled vets to end up avoiding a cut.
Republicans are certain to keep pushing to repeal Obama’s namesake healthcare program. But the president says that Obamacare will remain the law - at least while he is in the White House, where he can veto any legislation to kill it.
Meanwhile, the fumbled kickoff of Obamacare has prompted many frustrated Democrats to call for action to bolster the program and ease voter opposition. Backers note that an estimated 2 million people have signed up for the insurance. Yet that is 1 million short of what had been forecast by the end of 2013.
Senate Democratic Leader Reid may defy a White House veto threat and call for a vote to impose new sanctions on Iran if talks aimed at curbing Iran’s nuclear program fail. The Senate vote could come as early as this month. Obama says threatening to toughen sanctions would be counterproductive at a time when his administration is working to improve relations with Iran, which have been very tense for more than 35 years.
In response to a proliferation of plastic guns made with 3-D printers, a group of Democratic lawmakers supports a White House-backed push to update a 25-year-old law against guns that can pass undetected through metal detectors.
These members want all firearms to include at least a few ounces of non-removable metal that are essential to firing the weapon. The gun industry opposes such proposals, saying it would infringe on the right to bear arms.
U.S. District Court Judge Robert Wilkins appears certain to be confirmed by the Senate to a seat on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, which is widely considered the nation’s second most powerful court, behind only the U.S. Supreme Court. A vote is likely early this month.
Wilkins will be Obama’s third nominee to the D.C. Circuit to be confirmed by the Senate within three months. All three were blocked last year, helping trigger a Senate rule change that stripped Republicans of their ability to stop most of Obama’s nominees with a filibuster. (Reporting by Thomas Ferraro; Editing by Jim Loney and Steve Orlofsky)