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Work Unfinished Before Recess

As Congress returns home to campaign ahead of the November elections, they leave behind a raft of unfinished business that is likely to be revisited in the lame-duck session, including a defense authorization bill, a farm bill and domestic abuse legislation.

Democrats, who hold the majority in the Senate with 53 votes, contend that these measures remain uncompleted because Senate Republicans have blocked their legislative plans in a strategy to create a dysfunctional Senate, for which they hope to score political points on which to campaign and win back the majority.

“I am disappointed that this session of Congress has been so unproductive, but I know the reason why,” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said on the floor Friday. “It isn’t for a lack of effort.”

“We have never, ever in the history of the United States Senate run into such a consistent strategy of obstruction by one party,” Durbin continued, noting that Democrats have had to file cloture motions 382 times to try to overcome procedural hurdles.

Republicans in the House, where they hold the majority, and Senate argue that it is Senate Democrats who have blocked the legislative progress with a strategy that seeks to minimize the number of votes held to protect their vulnerable Members and maintain their slim majority at the expense of addressing critical issues.

“Democrats have failed to lead,” Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said Friday at a press conference shortly before the House left town.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said, “Never before have a president and a majority party in the Senate done so little to address challenges as great as the ones our nation faces right now – never. They haven’t passed a single appropriations bill this year or a defense authorization bill, even though the Senate has passed one every year for more than half a century.”

Both Durbin and McConnell said electing more Members from their respective parties would take care of the dysfunction.

Nevertheless, it is this group of lawmakers that will need to address the remaining business in the lame-duck session.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, was skeptical that much would get done but is pressing for action on the defense authorization bill.

“Everybody expects everything to come up in the lame duck; it’s going to be the most productive lame duck in history,” he said facetiously.

He noted that the defense bill “usually takes about a week” and that, while hundreds of amendments are offered, they are typically winnowed to a manageable number.

He reiterated his frustration with Democratic leaders to wait until after the elections to take up the measure. If taken up and passed, it would need to be reconciled with the House version, which was approved in May, before being sent to the president for his signature.

Authorization for federal agriculture programs is set to expire at the end of the month, but Congress is expected to try to pass the measure during the lame-duck session.

Boehner, who has chosen not to take up a House Agriculture Committee-passed farm bill, said Friday that the House will find a path forward on the farm bill after the elections.

“When we get back, the House will take up the issue of the farm bill,” Boehner said at his press conference. “It’s too early to determine right now what kind of mood members are going to be in and what kind of opinions they are going to have.”

Senate Democrats, and some House Republicans from farm states, have been urging House GOP leaders to pass a bill so a conference committee can be formed to negotiate a compromise. The Senate effort, led by Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), passed its five-year authorization bill in June.

Stabenow and Democrats have ruled out a short-term extension, hoping that allowing the expiration to happen will spur urgency and quick action after the elections.

Kicking the bill into the lame duck could have one auxiliary benefit, aides have said: The House bill reduces direct spending over the 2013-2022 period by about $35 billion and the Senate’s by more than $23 billion, and those savings could be used to offset whatever product comes out of negotiations on the fiscal cliff.

Other bills that could come up in the lame duck include the Violence Against Women Act. Both the House and Senate passed their respective versions, but the Senate bill contains a provision that would give battered undocumented women temporary visas to encourage them to come forward.

The provision, which charges a fee for temporary visas, violates a portion of the Constitution requiring revenue-raising bills to originate in the House. That essentially allows the House to kill the Senate bill and force it to pass it again without the offending proposal.

The Senate bill also includes language extending protections to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals.

Proponents of the measure hope that the bill comes up in the lame duck, and they also hope that with the elections behind them, both sides will be more willing to compromise, Senate Democratic aides said.

Other bills that could come up include legislation that would help safeguard the nation against cyber-attacks, and a postal reform bill.

Senate Republicans derailed an effort to pass a cybersecurity bill in August, charging that Democrats would not allow them to offer amendments to the measure.

Efforts to reform the post office were also derailed after the Senate passed a bill, as House Republicans failed to act.  

Action could also come on reauthorizing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and approving permanent normal trade relations with Russia.