Congress Tries To Craft Budget Deal Before Holiday Break

The Senate is back from vacation and trying to get a budget deal completed. The House plans to leave town for the year at the end of the week, which means the heat is on to settle on spending levels for 2014 and 2015. Democrats would also like to insert money for extended unemployment benefits, which expire at the end of December. If nothing else, negotiators want to agree on a "topline" spending amount to avoid another government shutdown when the current stopgap spending measure expires Jan. 15.

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The Senate and the House are in a race to finish their work before leaving for the holidays. This is the last time both chambers are in town before the end of the year. And the congressional to-do list is substantial, starting with the budget. NPR congressional correspondent Tamara Keith has been tracking those budget negotiations and she joins us now. And, Tam, tell us where things stand. Is there some sort of budget agreement that they're close to reaching and what would it include?

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Talks are continuing. They even took place over the weekend. But there is no deal yet. And whatever they do come up with would be small, if there is one. One person close to the negotiation says there's still only a 50-50 chance that they come to an agreement. Others are more optimistic, and there's a sense of inevitability in some circles.

What they're trying to do is settle on spending levels for the government for 2014 and 2015. They'd like to at least partially replace the sequester. Those are those automatic, across-the-board spending cuts that nobody really likes. And they would do this with a combination of other spending cuts and perhaps new fees. But the negotiators are still working on the mix of those things.

BLOCK: And one outstanding issue that's tied in with all this is unemployment insurance, the federal benefits program for the long-term unemployed will expire at the end of the year. And the question is, will Congress extend it?

KEITH: And it's not clear at this point. 1.3 million people would lose benefits immediately at the end of the month if it isn't extended. Some point to the 7 percent unemployment rate that came out on Friday, which is an improvement, as a sign that these benefits are no longer needed. Democrats would argue 7 percent is nowhere near good enough and that, in fact, there are still just a huge number of people who are the long-term unemployed, looking for work for six months or longer.

Republicans are sort of ambivalent on it. And House Speaker John Boehner says he would be open to ideas. But the problem is really figuring out how to pay for it because the bill could be as much as $25 billion for one year.

BLOCK: And the deadline for a budget agreement is this Friday. I think that's when the House is planning to leave town. But the real deadline is January 15th, and that's when the current stopgap spending bill expires. And that means if they don't have a new one, there could be another government shutdown. Is that a real possibility?

KEITH: I don't think anyone wants it. No one I've spoken to thinks it's a good idea. So if budget negotiators are able to come to a deal, then they can give the appropriations committees - the ones who actually write the spending bills - a number to use. And then they will scramble to get something done, some sort of a bill that Congress could pass when they come back in January. Here's House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers. He's a Republican from Kentucky.

REPRESENTATIVE HAL ROGERS: Well, hopefully we'll get the number by the 13th, and we'll try to make it work. We may have to call up Santa to bring some elves down to help us out.

(LAUGHTER)

KEITH: Elves could be needed.

BLOCK: Standing by.

KEITH: Or just really diligent staffers.

BLOCK: OK. NPR congressional correspondent Tamara Keith. Tamara, thanks so much.

KEITH: You're welcome.

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