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Biding Its Time, Senate Has Plenty on Its Plate

Senate leaders have plenty to keep the chamber busy through Christmas if they want to keep lawmakers in town through negotiations to avert the fiscal cliff.

The sheer volume of unfinished business underscores the point that the biggest obstacle in advancing priorities for Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is the clock. With negotiations on the plan to avert tax increases and spending cuts at a virtual stalemate, however, Reid may have time to fill.

After work concludes this week on the fiscal 2013 defense policy bill (S 3254) and a United Nations treaty regarding rights of the disabled, the Senate is expected to turn to a package that would establish permanent normalized trade relations with Russia, which would help U.S. companies more easily access Russian markets. That measure could take some time to work through, particularly if senators vote on an amendment from Maryland Democratic Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin that would broaden the bill’s human rights provisions beyond Russia. A Senate aide expected the Cardin amendment would be turned back if offered.

Another item that could reach the floor soon is the “Carcieri fix” legislation, named for former Rhode Island Gov. Donald L. Carcieri. The measure is intended to undo a 2009 Supreme Court decision in which the court held that certain tribes are not allowed to take non-reservation land into trust for use for casinos and other purposes, unless they were recognized before 1934 or they should have been.

The court ruling has complicated plans for more recently recognized tribes to expand and open a variety of businesses, including gaming ventures. Advocates, led by retiring Indian Affairs Chairman Daniel K. Akaka, D-Hawaii, have pushed to get a fix through Congress.

Work also continues on an agreement on the details of the legislation (S 676) to prepare it for the floor as soon as after the defense authorization is finished, an Indian Affairs Committee aide said Monday.

Tribal leaders are coming to Washington this week for the annual White House Tribal Nations Conference, which will be held Wednesday at the Interior Department.

Democratic leadership aides assembled a long list of potential measures for consideration during the lame duck, with the level of optimism varying for each item.

For instance, the list includes legislation that would expand opportunities for credit unions to make business loans and a bill favored by banks that would extend a bailout-era program that offers unlimited deposit insurance coverage for noninterest-bearing transaction accounts.

Credit unions are hoping to combine their business lending bill with the other legislation favored by community banks. Banks are vehemently opposed to the credit union bill because it would allow them to substantially increase their business loan portfolios. Credit unions figure they can ease their measure through by sweetening it with the banking bill.

That sounds good in theory, but it ignores the fact that banks big and small loath the credit union bill, which may make the deal unlikely. Bank support for the guarantee program is mixed. Many larger institutions would be happy to see the program lapse, given that it mostly benefits community banks that are lobbying furiously for the extension.

Action on a reauthorization of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and the annual intelligence authorization also remains possible. However, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has held up both measures (S 3454, S 3276) on civil liberties grounds. There are also unfinished House-Senate agreements on matters ranging from farm policy to a reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act that could take several days of floor time each in the event deals are reached.

Benton Ives contributed to this report.

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