Congress Faces Farm Bill, Debt Ceiling In 2014

The Senate left town Friday, wrapping up the first session of the 113th Congress. Capitol Hill reporter Ailsa Chang joins NPR's Scott Simon to talk about the many things left to tackle in the year ahead.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The U.S. Senate wrapped up its first session of the 113th Congress yesterday. Despite modest signs of bipartisanship near the end of the session, this year's been lampooned as one of the least productive years in the history of the legislative branch, one mired in partisan strife. NPR's congressional reporter Ailsa Chang joins us now. Ailsa, thanks for being with us.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: You're welcome. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: There was a flurry of activity in the last couple of weeks. What did Congress pass before the holidays?

CHANG: Well yeah, they do deserve some props for passing a budget agreement. This was the first bipartisan budget agreement in a divided Congress since 1986. And that will now let them hammer out a spending bill by January 15th so we can avoid another government shutdown. Of course, this budget agreement didn't even touch the really hard stuff still looming next year, like cutting Medicare and Social Security in exchange for tax reform.

And the defense bill, which was another thing that got done; that passed Thursday. And it was the result of another bipartisan agreement. Of course, this is a bill Congress is supposed to do every year, so it would have been a story if it didn't pass and what probably got the most attention in this bill were reforms to more aggressively prosecute sexual assault in the military. There are some lawmakers who don't think those reforms go far enough and they're going to push the amendment next year that would put prosecutors rather than commanders in charge of sexual assault cases.

SIMON: And weren't there a number of confirmations that went through after the Senate changed the rules?

CHANG: Yes, that's right. There's been a lot of bitterness actually from Republicans about that rules change. They've been trying to drag out the process as best as they can these last few days using up the maximum time for debates, so the chambers had to wait up to 30 hours before a final vote in some cases. But Democrats were able to confirm two more judges to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, and a bunch of other nominations.

And Senate majority leader Harry Reid said he had to play hardball and then do this rules change or else Congress would have had an even more unproductive year. Remember, Democrats saw gun control die in April; they saw immigration overhaul pass the Senate and then go nowhere in the House; and then there was the government shutdown after 40-some attempts by the House to take a whack at the Affordable Care Act.

SIMON: And let's talk about that. How else might partisan friction become visible in the next session?

CHANG: Well, the first test will be extension of benefits for the long-term unemployed. Those benefits expire December 28th and Reid says he wants a vote on the bill first thing when the Senate gets back. He also wants to increase the minimum wage and it's not clear that will go anywhere in the House, but Speaker John Boehner has said he's willing to extend unemployment insurance.

The only thing is, he's expected to push for some spending reductions in return. Also the farm bill still needs to get done and the House and Senate are still figuring out how big of a cut to make to food stamps under that legislation.

SIMON: There's the debt ceiling too, right?

CHANG: That's right. And that looming deadline could affect the ability of both sides to work together. It might get a little uglier. That deadline is coming up in March, maybe a little later than that, and some Republicans are already saying they're not going to raise the debt ceiling without extracting concessions.

Exactly what kind of concessions they haven't yet specified, but President Obama reiterated yesterday he is not going to negotiate on the debt ceiling whatsoever.

SIMON: NPR's congressional reporter, Ailsa Chang. Thanks so much.

CHANG: You're welcome.

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