10 Things to Watch in Congress in 2014

WASHINGTON – Searching for legislation likely to attract consideration during the second session of the 113th Congress is like trying to find water in the Sahara – you know there’s an oasis out there somewhere but anything you think you see is likely just a mirage.

The first session of the 113th Congress generally is viewed as the least productive in the nation’s history. Lawmakers passed 65 bills – the lowest number since 1947, the year such statistics were first kept. The so-called “do-nothing” 80th Congress of 1947-48, which President Harry Truman campaigned against, produced 906 bills over a two-year period. The previous Congress, the 112th, passed 81 bills in its first year.

Many small-government Republicans, including House Speaker John Boehner, of Ohio, insist the lack of activity isn’t a bad thing. Boehner, in fact, said it’s more important that the voting public take heed of the legislation that didn’t pass.

"We should not be judged on how many new laws we create," he said at one point in 2013. “We ought to be judged on how many laws we repeal."

But that same public is fairly well convinced the 113th Congress has been awful. A CNN/ORC International poll released last week found that two-thirds of those surveyed considered the 113th to be, thus far, the worst ever. Almost 75 percent characterized it as a “do-nothing” Congress.

It’s hard to imagine how the second session will turn out to be much better than the first. The first session of a Congress is usually the most productive. In this instance the partisan divide remains wider than the sky. Complicating matters is the November election – many lawmakers will be looking to avoid controversial votes.

Regardless, the 113th Congress is going to have to pass – or at least consider -- something to justify its existence. Here are 10 quick possibilities.

THE FARM BILL – Lawmakers wrangled over this for months during the first session and the issue should come to a head sometime early on. It’s considered a must for farm-state representatives since it provides subsidies for agricultural interests – there are fears that the price of milk could reach $7 or more per gallon if it’s not quickly addressed.

The problem is food stamps, a major provision in the bill. The House wants to slash the program by $39 billion. The Senate, controlled by Democrats, is willing to accept a modest $4 billion cut. The question will have to be resolved in conference.

UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFITS – Democrats had hoped to gain an extension of emergency benefits to the nation’s unemployed as part of the budget deal that passed both chambers before the Christmas recess. But Republicans, as represented by Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Budget Committee, balked and the provision was left out of the deal.

As a result, about 1.3 million saw their unemployment insurance expire at the end of 2013, at a time when more than 7 percent of the nation’s workforce remains jobless. Democrats are unlikely to let the issue die and intend to use it to paint an ugly picture of the GOP in the fall elections. Boehner said he’s willing to consider an extension but the money for it will have to come from existing programs. Legislation has been introduced in both the House and Senate to extend the benefit at an estimated cost of $25 billion.

DEBT CEILING – Here we go again. Opposing sides are once again rushing toward a showdown over raising the nation’s debt ceiling, which essentially authorizes the Treasury to borrow the funds necessary to pay the nation’s bills.

Republicans are reluctant to raise the ceiling, arguing that it leads to more government spending and, therefore, more debt, forcing the ceiling to be raised yet again in the near future. Democrats maintain that without a necessary adjustment the U.S. will default on its obligations, sending world markets swirling into chaos. The hike doesn’t increase spending, it simply allows the nation’s bills to be paid.

The last face-off didn’t place the GOP in a good light. Boehner sought fiscal concessions from President Obama in return for raising the ceiling – starting with repeal of the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare. The White House balked, insisting that lawmakers deliver a clean bill. Republicans finally acquiesced.

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has informed Congress that the U.S. is likely to hit the debt ceiling once again sometime in late February or early March, igniting a firestorm once again. Ryan maintains Republicans expect to receive something in return – like approval of the Keystone XL pipeline pumping oil to the Gulf Coast from Canada.

KEYSTONE XL PIPELINE – As long as we’re on the subject, Republicans likely will try to force the administration to approve pipeline construction. Obama has been slow-walking the 1,661-mile, $7 billion project, voicing serious concerns about feared environmental consequences. Republicans counter the project will create an estimated 20,000 direct jobs – opponents claim the total is significantly less -- and carry nearly a million additional barrels per day of secure Canadian oil supplies to U.S. refineries, from Hardisty, Alberta, Canada, to an area near the Texas Gulf Coast.

The House has voted at least seven times to proceed with construction – often with significant Democratic support. The issue has died in the Senate but support seems to be growing, perhaps initiating another effort.

IMMIGRATION – The issue is being watched because, among other things, it may prove to be Waterloo for the presidential hopes of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). His support for a Senate measure has drawn disdain from Tea Party conservatives, perhaps leaving him in the station after the train takes off.

The Senate passed a highly publicized, sweeping measure last June that, among other things, provided the nation’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants with a path to citizenship. House Republicans balked and rejected the concept of one major bill. Instead, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, is creating immigration legislation that will be broken into several component parts, each to be voted on individually.

Boehner has vowed to push the House version of immigration reform but it’s likely that whatever emerges will be a likeness to the Senate bill, meaning the lower chamber is unlikely to approve a path to citizenship. A difficult conference committee is in the offing.