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Congress is back in action - and divided as ever

2:53 PM, Jan 5, 2014   |    comments
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, left, accompanied by Sen. Charles Schumer, listens during a news conference on Capitol Hill on Dec. 19. Congress returns to work on Jan. 6, 2014. (Photo: J. Scott Applewhite, AP)
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WASHINGTON - Congress resumes work Monday as divided as ever on the nation's priorities and focused on themes they hope will resonate with voters ahead of November's midterm elections.

Democrats, who have seized on income inequality as a major theme of the 2014 campaign, are pushing to increase the $7.25-an-hour federal minimum wage and have scheduled a test vote Monday night in Senate on a bill to extend long-term unemployment insurance for people out of work for 26 weeks or longer.

Those benefits lapsed Dec. 28 for 1.3 million people when Congress left for the holidays without taking action. Republicans have said they are open to extending benefits but want the cost of doing so offset by spending cuts and other changes.

Over the weekend, President Obama and leaders in the Democratic-controlled Senate challenged Republicans to oppose the unemployment legislation, which would extend benefit by three months.

"Republicans in Congress have to get away from being a Republican in Congress," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said on CBS' Face the Nation on Sunday. "They are just out of touch with what's going on in America today."

If Republicans "block this renewal ... it will hurt their chances in the 2014 election," Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., told reporters during a Sunday afternoon conference call.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican viewed as a possible presidential contender in 2016, said Democrats are pressing the issue because "they want to desperately to talk about anything but Obamacare." He spoke on CNN's State of the Union.

For their part, Republicans who control the House pledged to remain focused on the health-care law and the rocky rollout of the healthcare.gov website. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said the law "is broken and cannot be fixed."

Cantor said the House Republican leaders will push legislation in the coming days to ensure the security of personal data collected from individuals who have enrolled in private insurance through the federal government's health care site. He said Republicans also plan to closely monitor administration's enrollment numbers.

"Our efforts will be shaped by our desire to help protect the American people from the harmful effects of this law," Cantor said in a memo released Friday, outlining House GOP priorities.

Reid acknowledged an "awful" start to the health care website. But he said changes to the site have improved its function and hailed the law's other provisions, such as allowing young people to remain on their parent's health-insurance plans until age 26. "It's already working," Reid said. "Republicans should get a life and start talking about doing something constructively."

In a rare example of bipartisan agreement, Congress last month approved a two-year budget framework. But the new year may promise more confrontation than compromise.

Unfinished business includes Senate action on Obama's choice of Janet Yellen to become the first woman to head the Federal Reserve. A vote could come as early as Monday.

Lawmakers in both chambers also must approve another spending bill by Jan. 15 to keep the government running and avert another potential partial shutdown of the federal government.

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