In lame-duck, Congress looking to resolve legislative leftovers

Congress is running out of time, and not just when it comes to dealing with the looming fiscal cliff.

Lawmakers returning to Washington from the campaign trail are off to a slow start in resolving a series of legislative leftovers that have piled up for the lame-duck session.

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Major farm and postal reform measures, a defense authorization bill, legislation to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act are all on the congressional to-do list when the House and Senate come back from their Thanksgiving recess.

So far, those issues have fallen under the radar amid the obsessive focus on the tax increases and spending cuts that are scheduled to take effect at year’s end.

As negotiations on the fiscal cliff got under way, Congress made little headway on the other lame-duck items during the first week the House and Senate were in session after the election.

The Senate could not pass a cybersecurity bill, and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) declared it “dead for this Congress” after Republicans blocked a cloture vote because of a dispute over amendments.

The House conducted little official business because of Republican leadership elections, but it did approve a long-awaited bill to normalize trade relations with Russia. That measure now moves to the Senate.

The House is scheduled to be in session for just three more weeks before the end of the year, but leaders will likely add at least another week to the schedule to accommodate the long list of pending year-end legislation.

It is also possible that one or more unrelated measures could be attached to whatever legislation emerges from the fiscal cliff talks, on the grounds that it may be the last must-pass legislative vehicle of the year.

Here is a look at the state-of-play for other non-fiscal cliff items:

DEFENSE AUTHORIZATION

The defense authorization bill, a version of which passed the House in May, is at the top of the Senate docket after Thanksgiving.

Reid plans to bring it to the floor when the Senate returns, citing an agreement between the Democratic and Republican leaders on the Armed Services Committee to limit amendments to the bill. Complicating matters, however, is a move by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) to hold up the bill to get a vote on his amendment regarding the indefinite detention of American citizens. History is riding on the bill, as Congress has passed a defense authorization measure annually for the last 50 years.

FARM BILL

After passing the Senate earlier this year with bipartisan support, a five-year farm bill has been stuck in the House, with Republican leaders acknowledging that it does not have the 218 votes needed to pass.

Its fate could be tied to a resolution of the fiscal cliff talks, however, since leaders may want to take the cuts to agricultural programs as budget savings. Farm programs expired at the end of September, so Congress could pass an extension into next year if the full bill does not advance.

POSTAL REFORM

Lawmakers haven’t given up hope on legislation to overhaul the cash-strapped U.S. Postal Service, which last week reported a $15.9 billion loss for fiscal 2012.

The Senate passed legislation in April, and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) has led a push for a House version. The top Democrat on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), said this week after a meeting on the bill that it stood a “50-50” chance of getting done before the end of the year. House Republican leaders, however, have yet to commit to a floor vote.

VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN ACT

The House and Senate passed competing reauthorizations of this 1990s-era law, and the two chambers have been locked in a stalemate ever since.

Advocates have rallied around the Senate version, which garnered 68 votes and includes specific provisions aimed at LGBT, tribal and immigrant populations. House Republicans have sought a formal conference committee, but Senate Democrats have essentially ignored the request and are demanding that the House approve their version.

A Democratic aide said senators were hoping that the GOP tune would change because of the election, when significant gaps with women, Latino and gay voters hurt Republican candidates at the polls. “If House Republicans maintain the same posture of refusing to take up and pass a bill that cleared the Senate with 68 votes we’ll know that the lessons of the election were lost on them,” the aide said.

FISA

The House is waiting for the Senate to act on an extension of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), but that measure has languished since Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) placed a hold on it in June.

OMNIBUS APPROPRIATIONS

Republican and Democratic aides confirm to The Hill that they have quietly made significant progress on an omnibus appropriations bill that would replace a stopgap spending bill Congress passed in September that funds the government through March.

The question is if – and when – this bill might come to the floor for a vote. A Democratic appropriations aide said the need for additional disaster relief funding because of Hurricane Sandy “provided added impetus to move an omnibus,” and the committees are awaiting word from leadership on how to proceed.

Erik Wasson and Bernie Becker contributed.

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