Luring a Lame-Duck Congress Into Legislative Action

House members and Senators returning for the final lame-duck session of the 112th Congress have their work cut out for them if they want to be home for Christmas this year. There is a pile of unfinished business from 2012 and the nation’s looming “fiscal cliff” to step back from. But many partisan members, despite the president’s strong popular and electoral showing in November, are still dreaming of a right Christmas.

At the top of the pile is a budget compromise intended to align spending better with revenue in a way that will prevent sequestration, the automatic budget cuts and tax hikes that go into effect in January if Congress does not come up with a plan. Related to the budget and deficit challenge is a fast approaching debt ceiling. In the winter of 2011, Congressional brinkmanship over the ceiling, which limits the ability of the government to borrow money to paper over its annual deficits, nearly provoked a global financial panic and cost the nation its stellar debt rating.

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Worried that the budget will be balanced by reducing programs that aid the nation’s most vulnerable, like school children receiving school breakfast and lunch and other nutritional assistance or people overseas receiving U.S. aid, Catholic advocates have joined a multifaith effort calling for a “circle of protection” around such expenditures.

Any fiscal deal “must be comprehensive and balanced,” said Kathy Saile, director of domestic social development for the U.S. bishops. “It must involve deficit reduction. It must require tax increases. It must protect the poor and vulnerable.” And to accomplish all that, she added, “It must be bipartisan.”

The Rev. Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, wanted to debunk the notion that government programs that help the poor promote dependency. “My father was a hardworking man. He had two jobs. He was a pastor,” he said. “My mother was working. We were on food stamps. It helped us,” the Rev. Salguero added. “If it didn’t help us, we’d go hungry. It’s not anecdotal; it’s straight from human experience.”

But deficit cutting is not the only item on the agenda this session. There is still a farm bill to approve. The nation’s current governing legislation on agriculture expired on Sept. 30. The existing plan can be extended or a new package approved, but the House and Senate versions of the farm bill are far apart. The Senate passed its bill, but the plan has not even been put to floor debate in the House.

Robert Gronski, a policy advisor for the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, said many agricultural and political forces are pushing behind the scenes for a new farm bill before the lame duck session ends. “But the reality is, how do we get it done?” There’s not a lot of time left on the calendar, he explained, and many burning bridges remain to be crossed between the House and Senate to achieve a reconciled package that might make it to the president’s desk.

“There’s a game of chicken that’s being played here,” Gronski said. “Most likely there’s going to be an extension [of the existing 2008 farm bill], but what kind of extension I can’t say.”

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