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Election-year politics shape congressional agenda

AP

Congress returns to work Monday with election-year politics certain to shape an already limited agenda.

Republicans intend to focus on every facet of President Barack Obama’s health care law. They see a political boost in its problem-plagued rollout as Republicans look to maintain their House majority and seize control of the Democratic-led Senate.

First up in the House of Representatives, according to Majority Leader Eric Cantor, is legislation addressing the security of personal data of those using federal and state websites to sign up for health care insurance, part of his party’s effort “to protect the American people from the harmful effects of Obamacare.”

Republicans also promise closer scrutiny of the administration’s tally of enrollment numbers in the program.

Democrats will press to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour and extend unemployment benefits, trying to cast their party as more concerned with the less fortunate and intent on dealing with income inequality. The issues resonate with liberals, the core Democratic voters crucial in low-turnout midterm elections.

Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, said an extension of federal benefits for an estimated 1.3 million long-term unemployed Americans who saw their payments stopped on Dec. 28 is more than an economic issue.

“It’s about real people, people with families struggling to put food on the table, to make ends meet, including … 200,000 military veterans who are among these folks who are losing their benefits,” he told reporters Friday.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has scheduled a vote Monday night on legislation by Democratic Sen. Jack Reed and Republican Sen. Dean Heller to extend long-term unemployment benefits for three months.

However, Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer said he is unsure Democrats can cobble together the 60 votes needed to overcome a procedural hurdle to bring the measure to a final vote.

“If we don’t get the 60, we will come back at this issue,” he promised.

Obama already has scheduled a White House event on Tuesday with some whose benefits expired at the end of December.

“Instead of punishing families who can least afford it, Republicans should make it their New Year’s resolution to do the right thing and restore this vital economic security for their constituents right now,” Obama said Saturday in his weekly radio and Internet address.

Republicans hinted they might go along with extending benefits if they win spending cuts from Reid elsewhere to pay for them.

Rancor ruled in the first session of the 113th Congress with few bills passed and sent to the president to sign. The combination of divided government and the upcoming elections stand as an obstacle to major legislation in the second session, counting down to November when all 435 House seats and 35 Senate seats will be on the ballot.

Still, Congress must deal with some significant unfinished business before delving deep into political votes and extended breaks for campaigning.

The Senate was to vote Monday on Obama’s nomination of Janet Yellen to become the head of the Federal Reserve. If confirmed, Yellen would become the first woman to fill the powerful post, replacing Ben Bernanke.

Lawmakers face a Jan. 15 deadline to agree on a spending bill to keep the government running and avoid a partial shutdown that roiled Congress last fall. Passage of legislation in December scaling back the automatic, across-the board cuts gave the House and Senate Appropriations Committees time to draft a massive, trillion-dollar-plus measure to run the government through September.

A short-term measure is likely this month just to let the government continue operating.

The Republican-controlled House and Democratic-led Senate spent a chunk of last year wrangling over renewing the nation’s farm bill after passing separate, competing versions of the five-year, roughly $500 billion measure. In dispute are crop subsidies and how deeply to cut the $80 billion-a-year food stamp program that helps poor Americans purchase groceries, with the House slashing $4 billion and the Senate $400 million annually.

Lawmakers are pressing for a compromise that can win approval from the House and Senate.

Several contentious issues loom in the near term.

Twenty-six senators have signed on to a new Iran sanctions bill that Obama opposes while his administration negotiates with the Iranian government over its nuclear program. Proponents of the legislation are seeking to gain the support of further senators when Congress reconvenes, with the hope of securing a full Senate vote this month.

Although the issue may not be an immediate legislative priority for returning lawmakers, it could become a major point of discussion as advocates and opponents of fresh penalties make their cases.

Reid spared the administration a vote in December, but this month he may not be able to hold off proponents of tough sanctions.

The majority leader did promise Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand a vote on her legislation to give victims of rape and sexual assault in the military an independent route outside the chain of command for prosecuting attackers. Her solution would take the decision from commanders and give it to seasoned military lawyers.

The top echelon of the military, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and other Senate Democrats and Republicans oppose her plan. Reid backs it as do several top conservative Republicans such as Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, but Gillibrand is still short of the 60 votes needed to bring the measure to a final vote.

Unclear is whether the House will tackle major legislation to overhaul immigration laws. Advocates remain hopeful, buoyed by House Speaker John Boehner’s hire of a Senate aide who worked on bipartisan immigration legislation for Republican Sen. John McCain, and Boehner’s willingness to stand up to outside conservative groups and supporters of the ultraconservative tea party movement over the budget.

Boehner and Obama have spoken about a piecemeal approach to immigration reform after the comprehensive Senate measure stalled in the House. But some House Republicans still resist any legislation, fearing it would lead to negotiations with the Senate and a final bill that includes a path to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants living in the U.S. illegally.