Clock running out for passing big bills

Lawmakers and lobbyists are losing hope for several major bills as the clock runs out on the lame-duck session of Congress. 

Consumed by the “fiscal cliff,” Capitol Hill has plenty left on its plate but not enough time to address it all. Legislation dealing with postal reform, farm policy and domestic violence is dying a slow death as the deficit negotiations trudge on.

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Some on K Street are making a last-ditch effort to attach their favored pieces of legislation to whatever compromise Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and President Obama can reach. Lobbyists acknowledge they face long odds, but several say the “fiscal cliff” package is the only game left in town.

“It is going to require Mr. Boehner and Mr. Reid sending a signal to the [Agriculture] Committee leadership that the farm bill will be attached to the fiscal-cliff deal,” said Mary Kay Thatcher, senior director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation. “Given a signal that that’s possible, there is still time to get this done.” 

Thatcher said Congress could pass a full, five-year authorization of farm programs — like both the House Agriculture Committee and the Senate have already done — or move on a one-year extension with some adjustments for programs that have already expired. 

But differences still need to be worked out between the House and Senate versions of the farm bill, and time for negotiations is running short, with the new Congress expected to be sworn on Jan. 3 next year.  

Without action by Capitol Hill, Thatcher said several key subsidy programs would lapse, hurting farmers in the process. 

“That last option would be such a disaster that I don’t think anybody would want that,” Thatcher said. 

Thatcher is not alone in her last-minute push for legislation, as a number of groups and industries are fighting to get bills over the finish line. Delay is their enemy, because it would mean starting over in the 113th Congress with a whole new slew of lawmakers and committee chairmen on several issues. 

The banking industry and responsible-lending advocates are making a final push for extending the Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act, which allows homeowners to avoid a tax bill that normally would come with savings made from a short sale of a house or a modified mortgage. Before that law passed in 2007, any savings made from such transactions was considered taxable “phantom income.” 

With the law set to expire at the end of the year, Scott Talbott, senior vice president for public policy for the Financial Services Roundtable, is one of several people lobbying for its inclusion in a fiscal-cliff package. 

“If anything gets on the fiscal-cliff bill, it’ll be bipartisan and not controversial,” Talbott said. “We think this qualifies.” 

Talbott added that backers would be happy to see an extension passed as a stand-alone bill, but he worried that time would run out before that was possible. 

“The fiscal cliff is sucking all the oxygen out of the room … the calendar is against us,” he said. “We can’t do stand-alone until the fiscal cliff is addressed, that’s just not an option.” 

Lobbyists are lamenting the short time left in the lame-duck session, but few are giving up. When holiday breaks beckon, lobbyists note, lawmakers often move quicker than expected on legislation. 

“When you get to that point where ‘Am I going to get this vote done or am I going to get to spend the holiday with my family?’ you can get this done,” Thatcher said of the farm bill.

Lawmakers share K Street’s frustration about the dwindling calendar. 

“It is really disappointing that we are back here once again,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) told reporters on Tuesday. “As we stand here today, the clock is ticking.” 

Murray and other female Democratic senators gathered Tuesday to ramp up pressure on the House to pass the Senate-passed version of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which expired in 2011 and has been kept funded, but not authorized, through continuing resolutions. 

The senators said they had sent a letter to House Republican women asking them to support their version of the bill. They called the House version a “nonstarter.” 

Both chambers are looking for a way forward on the domestic violence bill. A spokesman for Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said he was working “tirelessly to seek common ground” and hoped to find a way to pass VAWA “immediately.” 

The Senate has passed an expanded version of the bill, while the House has approved an extension of the current measure. 

“It’s kind of a roller coaster that changes every five minutes, but I still maintain that it can be done,” said Juley Fulcher, director of public policy for Break the Cycle, a nonprofit group that works to reduce youth dating violence. “This is a very common-sense bill.” 

Several differences remain between the two pieces of legislation. Fulcher supports the Senate-passed bill, which includes a provision that would require college campuses to collect data on dating violence and stalking. 

Some have already thrown in the towel on legislation they have championed during the lame-duck session. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), for instance, said in a statement that Congress has “simply run out of time in the legislative calendar to pass an Internet poker bill.” 

Reid said it would be a priority for him to get the bill passed in the next Congress. But his attempt to legalize online poker might be moot by then, with several states moving legislation to authorize Internet gaming after a 2011 Justice Department decision found the Wire Act only prohibits online gambling on sports. 

Reid is also losing a Republican supporter with the retirement of Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.). 

John Pappas, executive director of the Poker Players Alliance (PPA), said his group, along with gaming companies and lotteries, would shift more of its attention to state legislatures next year.  

“The PPA will be pretty active in the states next year,” Pappas said. “I don’t think we will abandon 100 percent a federal effort, but losing Kyl, losing a lot of momentum in 2012 that we built up, doesn’t really help us too much in 2013 at the federal level. … You have to go where the fight is.” 

Reid has also expressed concern that there isn’t enough time to consider postal reform legislation without a unanimous consent agreement, a Democratic leadership aide told The Hill. The aide said it seemed unlikely that postal reform could be wrapped into a “fiscal cliff” deal. 

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, told reporters Tuesday he thought it was less than a 50-50 shot that a postal reform measure gets to Obama’s desk this year. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and another key postal negotiator, also said chances didn’t look good. 

Lawmakers from both parties and chambers have been trying to work through knotty issues like delivery standards, payments for future retiree healthcare and workers’ compensation issues as they try to stop the hemorrhaging of cash at the United States Postal Service. 

“We’re not there yet, and a lot of people outside this group negotiating don’t like what they hear our compromises are,” Lieberman said. “And at this stage of the session, if there’s any real controversy, there’s no time to do it, so I’m pessimistic.” 

But Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), the incoming chairman at Homeland Security, said he would keep plugging away on postal reform, saying the possibility of an after-Christmas work session was reason for hope. 

“As long as we’re here in session, I’m not giving up on postal reform,” Carper said.

— Peter Schroeder contributed.