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Congress Seeks Action on Stopgap

With lawmakers eager to get back on the campaign trail, Congress will seek to make quick work of a six-month stopgap spending bill, which could be the vehicle for an extension of federal farm programs set to expire at the end of the month.

The House is on track to clear the continuing resolution this week, with the Senate expected to follow suit next week, according to House and Senate aides from both parties.

The House could unveil the measure as soon as Monday and vote on it by Thursday.

“There is a desire to move quickly,” said a Senate GOP aide familiar with discussions on the CR.

The fiscal year expires Sept. 30, and House and Senate leaders have pledged to pass the CR to keep the government funded through March. This measure would allow Congressional leaders to avoid a politically self-destructive fight over funding the federal government before the November elections.

Senate passage of the bill is more likely to come after Rosh Hashanah, which begins the evening of Sept. 16 and lasts through the evening of Sept. 18, the Senate GOP aide said.

The measure is expected to be a narrowly focused document and will not include extraneous provisions that could threaten its passage, aides said.

Congressional leaders could include an extension of agriculture programs, which also expire at the end of the month.

A farm bill extension “is the most realistic option” for any unrelated provisions in the CR, a Senate GOP aide said.

The Senate passed its five-year agricultural program authorization in June, but House GOP leaders have yet to consider a committee-approved measure over concerns that GOP leaders may not have the votes to pass the bill. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has been grappling with partisan disagreements about how much to cut from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps.

If an extension is added to the CR, it is unclear whether it would be backed by Senate Agriculture Chairman Debbie Stabenow (D- Mich.), who has led the charge to ensure that her comprehensive five-year bill is passed.

Stabenow is expected to attend a Wednesday rally with farming interests who want to keep the pressure on lawmakers to pass either a bill or a short-term extension before the end of the month.

“The thinking behind why we need to have a rally is ‘Hey, agriculture is showing [Congress] we are going to stand up and be counted’ … and in an ideal situation, we get our farm bill done” before the end of the month, said Dale Moore, deputy executive director for public policy at the American Farm Bureau Federation.

Failing passage of a long-term bill, passage of a short-term extension would be acceptable, he said.

“We are aware that there is a need and would have to accept that an extension is much preferable to no action at all,” Moore said. It was unclear how short an extension would be acceptable to Stabenow and farm interests, but her measure has long been seen as a potential agenda item for the post-election lame-duck session. That could mean the issue would be before Congress again this year. Another option would be to extend the measure through March, similar to the CR.

Congress could also seek to pass a stand-alone extension, which would put pressure on the opposing party to follow suit or be blamed for allowing the programs to expire.

Expiration could also be a strategy in which one party seeks political gain by blaming the other party, as they vie for votes in farm states, such as Iowa.

But Moore said he hopes that the rally will show that allowing the farm programs to expire would hurt a wide section of constituencies and thus make the issue a political loser.

Moore said failure to act could lead to a rise in food prices, which would come in tough economic times and wreak havoc on the farming industry.

The Senate will vote Tuesday on whether to take up a bill from Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) to help veterans get jobs, including establishing a veterans jobs corps to employ veterans in conservation, recreation and resource management projects on public lands, and as firefighters and police officers.

Senate Republicans are likely to vote to begin debate on the bill, but that decision will not formally be made until Senators get a chance to discuss their strategy at their weekly Tuesday lunch.

A senior GOP Senate aide said Republicans will be looking for an open amendment process. But Democrats have said that the GOP abuses the amendment process by seeking to be dilatory or to score political points at the expense of legislating.

One possible GOP amendment could take on the issue of the fiscal cliff, which Republicans argue they have sought to address but contend Democrats are not.

Both parties have sought to extend the expiring 2001 and 2003 Bush-era tax cuts. Republicans sought to extend them to all taxpayers for one year, while Democrats wished to extend them only to households making less than $250,000 a year. Both proposals failed to achieve filibuster-proof majorities in the Senate before the summer recess, and the outcome is not likely to change.

Another possible GOP amendment could seek to replace automatic defense spending cuts, known as sequestration, set to begin in 2013. Democrats may also seek to offer amendments related to sequestration.

“I hope we can find a way to address the sequestration threat of Jan. 1,” Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said in Charlotte, N.C., where Democrats held their convention last week.  “It has to be done on a bipartisan basis … [and] it has to include revenues as well as spending cuts.”

Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.

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