Congress Stuck With Supercommittee's Leftovers

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In addition to coming up with a deficit reduction plan, the Congressional supercommittee was also charged with handling so many unrelated tasks that its failure last week has left Congress with a sizeable workload in its remaining weeks this year. NPR congressional correspondent David Welna joins host Audie Cornish to set the stage for December.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

Congress returns to Capitol Hill, faced now with the failure of the supercommittee to come up with a bipartisan deal to cut the national deficit. And aside from what that committee did or didn't do, quite a bit of Congress's agenda was left by the wayside, including some major debates about taxes and yet another deadline to approve spending, to keep the government running. So there's a lot to do in just a few weeks to pull it off.

Here to talk more about how long lawmakers are planning to tackle it all is NPR's congressional correspondent David Welna. Welcome, David.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.

CORNISH: So what are the must-pass bills that are coming up next?

WELNA: Well, there are two items that have to be acted on quickly or they'll die at the end of the year. And those are break on payroll taxes and emergency unemployment insurance benefits. Both of these were supported mainly by Democrats, and they were agreed to in a lame-duck session of Congress a year ago, in exchange for the extension of all the Bush-era tax cuts that Republicans were demanding. But unlike those tax cuts, which expire at the end of next year, the payroll tax break and unemployment insurance run out next month.

Congress also has to approve nine unfinished spending bills by December 16th when a stopgap spending bill runs out, or face the prospect of a partial government shutdown over the holidays.

CORNISH: David, I want to talk more about those first two must-pass items you mentioned. First, the payroll tax because President Obama has been talking about this one, right?

WELNA: Yes, he has. And it's really because he has a dog in this fight. That's because the jobs bill that he sent Congress in September proposed not only continuing the payroll tax rate, which saves average families about $900 this year, but expanding it to save them about $1,500 next year. That would deprive the Social Security Administration of more than $200 billion at a time when it's already taking in less that it's paying out.

So Mister Obama wants to make out for that lost revenue by raising taxes on the wealthiest. The Democratically-controlled Senate plans to vote on that. And at a rally in New Hampshire last week, the president threw down a challenge to the Republicans, who've resisted extending that tax break with higher taxes on the affluent.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Congress has a very simple choice next week: you want to cut taxes for the middle class and those who are trying to get into the middle class, or do you want to protect massive tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires; many of whom want to actually help.

CORNISH: David, the other thing you mentioned was unemployment benefits and unemployment insurance. This seems like a perennial debate.

WELNA: Right, because these are emergency unemployment benefits. Normally, people get 26 weeks of unemployment benefits from their states, with some federal help. But because of the kind of emergency situation the country is in, with such high unemployment, the federal government has been kicking in. And people, especially in states that have high unemployment, have been getting up to 99 weeks of unemployment insurance. But that's required appropriations by Congress and that runs out at the end of this year.

And Congress as never before failed to extend unemployment insurance benefits at a time of high unemployment. But Republicans are really demanding that everything be paid for this time. Republican Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas was asked about this last week.

SENATOR PAT ROBERTS: I think most people want them extended. At some time, you're going to have to stop that, in that you simply dig the hole deeper. But you're looking at people who are truly dependent on these programs. So I would say that they will be extended, they'll be paid for; the real discussion will come down as to how they're paid for.

WELNA: Economists agree that the money that is going to unemployed people is spent almost immediately. And if it doesn't go to them it could have an effect on economic growth next year.

CORNISH: What do all of these items on the agenda do to the plans lawmakers had to deal with the consequences of the supercommittee failure to come up with a deal?

WELNA: Well, a lot of these issues they had hoped would have been dealt with in a deal by the supercommittee. And since that never happened, they're left flailing around trying to get all these things done. But on top of that there's also the prospect of $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts a year from January taking place, if they don't come up with deficit reduction by then.

So, I think you're going to see another attempt by the whole Congress to agree on some kind of a deficit reduction plan. So that argument that we saw in the supercommittee will probably be playing out much more broadly across Congress over the coming months.

CORNISH: NPR's congressional correspondent David Welna. David, thank you so much.

WELNA: You're welcome, Audie.

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