Congress is back in action - and divided as ever

5:46 PM, Jan 5, 2014   |    comments
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WASHINGTON (USA TODAY) - Congress resumes work Monday as divided as ever on the nation's priorities and focused on themes lawmakers 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 the 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. Republicans have said they are open to extending benefits but want the cost of doing so offset by spending cuts and other changes.

President Obama, who returned to the nation's capital Sunday after more than two weeks of vacation in Hawaii, plans an event Tuesday at the White House with some long-term unemployed Americans to ramp up pressure on Congress to act.

Leaders in the Democratic-controlled Senate challenged Republicans to oppose the unemployment legislation, which would extend benefits 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.

Schumer, who also is in Senate leadership, said Democrats would revisit the issue if they do not get the 60 votes needed Monday to overcome a procedural obstacle on the emergency extension. The measure is sponsored by Sens. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Dean Heller, R-Nev.

The benefits cost about $26 billion annually. Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., said Reid "might find some people that are willing to talk with him" if he found cuts elsewhere in federal spending. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., called for other concessions from Democrats, such as easing "burdensome" government regulations. They were interviewed on CBS.

Gene Sperling, Obama's top economic adviser, said he opposed adding conditions to the measure. "Fourteen of the last 17 times that emergency unemployment's been extended, there have been no strings attached," he said on NBC's Meet the Press.

He said Congress should pass the three-month extension and then have a separate discussion about the best way to extend benefits for the remainder of the year.

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 website. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said the law "is broken and cannot be fixed."

Cantor said 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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