House lines up year-end blitz

The House could act on a flurry of bipartisan deals when it returns in December for the final two legislative weeks of 2013. Or, it could head home for the holidays emptyhanded.

Negotiators are trying to finish House-Senate conference reports on the budget, a farm bill and a water projects bill before the end of the year. Aides say there is a slim chance that all three could be done in time for the House to vote in 2013, but a likelier scenario is one or two of them will be punted into next year.

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House Republicans will also take up a number of other bills to send to the Senate, including the Kids First Research Act, long-delayed legislation championed by Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) that would redirect $126 million from funding for presidential nominating convention to the National Institutes of Health.

1) Water Resources Reform and Development Act

The most likely bill to reach President Obama’s desk by the end of the year is the Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRDA), legislation that authorizes billions of dollars in water projects, many of which are handled by the Army Corps of Engineers. 

The measure is the least controversial of the three and has largely flown under the public radar. Both the House and Senate passed bipartisan versions – the Senate by a vote of 83-14 in May and the House on a nearly unanimous vote of 417-3 in October, shortly after the federal government reopened.

While the conference committee just began meeting this week, leaders in both parties have voiced confidence about a smooth resolution. In a rarity, the White House supported both the House and Senate versions of the bill. It would be the first WRDA reauthorization in six years.

2) Farm Bill

Prospects for the completion of a five-year, $1 trillion farm bill appeared good until Thursday, when lead negotiators exited an intense round of talks without a deal. The chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), had wanted to wrap up an agreement before Congress left town this week to have enough time to set up votes in the House and Senate in December.

Without a deal before Thanksgiving, final passage in December is less likely. The House and Senate are both in session for just one week before the end of the year. The more conservative House GOP legislation cuts nearly $40 billion from food stamp programs compared to $4 billion in cuts from the Senate, on top of $11 billon that have already taken effect beginning this month.

Rank-and-file House Republicans said they were willing to give up some of the spending reductions in their bill in exchange for policy changes, such as a work requirement for welfare recipients.

The leaders reported on Thursday that the food stamp cuts remained a sticking point.

3) Budget conference

The 29-member budget conference committee, led by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), has the highest profile and the lowest expectations. The panel emerged from the deal that re-opened the government and lifted the debt ceiling in October after the 16-day shutdown.

Ryan and Murray quickly dampened hopes for any kind of “grand bargain,” but lawmakers, lobbyists and aides are skeptical that the committee could overcome the deep divide over taxes and spending to reach even a modest budget accord. But officials in both parties reported progress last week as Ryan and Murray sought an agreement that would produce a top-line spending level for two years while replacing sequestration cuts with a combination of other spending reductions and, potentially, non-tax revenue increases.

Ryan told senior Republicans this week he was “mildly optimistic” about a deal by the committee’s Dec. 13 deadline. No announcement is expected before Thanksgiving. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has said he is hopeful, but he has also declared that if no agreement is reached, the House would pass a continuing resolution maintaing sequestration spending levels. The current stopgap spending bill expires on Jan. 15.

4) National Defense Authorization Act

Chances for a defense authorization bill in 2013 grew dimmer when Senate Democrats failed to overcome a Republican filibuster on its bill on Thursday. The House passed its version in June, but there is little time left to both pass a Senate bill and reconcile it with the House before the end of the year, unless the two chambers extend their session beyond Dec. 13 or bypass the amendment process on the Senate floor. The NDAA has passed in Congress for 51 straight years, even amid the gridlock of recent years, so a resolution remains possible despite the time crunch.

Erik Wasson and Jeremy Herb contributed.