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Christmas Wish List: To Pass Their Bills

Even without a deal to avert the fiscal cliff, there’s no shortage of ornaments for a year-end legislative Christmas tree, but senators seeking a vehicle for their favorite bills may be left without one.

One prime example is legislation to establish a system of regulation for legalized online poker that also blocks other forms of Internet gambling. A priority of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., the bill would traditionally be the kind of targeted provision that lands in a must-pass bill that advances before the end of a Congress. This year may be different.

Retiring Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., has worked with Reid and his Nevada GOP counterpart Dean Heller on the measure, even though Reid and Heller had a pre-election feud about the measure. Kyl said Tuesday that there would be sufficient Republican votes to get the bill around procedural hurdles on the floor, but he cautioned Reid against packaging it into some sort of “Christmas tree” — a term for a bill that is loaded with disparate legislative priorities.

“The problem is how you ever get a bill like that up. If it ever comes up to the Senate, and it’s offered in the appropriate way — that is to say, not part of some bill that nobody’s going to vote for — then there’s no question about Republican votes in my view,” Kyl said.

Reid appeared genuinely surprised when asked about the developments on the measure during his Tuesday afternoon media availability.

“Everyone listen to this: We suddenly have Republican votes on Internet poker. Two weeks before Christmas. Without being vulgar, what the hell were they putting on it?” Reid said in response to a question.

There’s no shortage of items that other senators would want to include in a catchall measure. Another group of senators wants to find a home for a proposal to allow states to collect sales tax for Internet-based purchases. In addition, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., still wants to find a home for a collection of bills to benefit hunters and others sportsmen.

Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., a supporter of the online sales tax bill, signaled last week that the bill would not hitch a ride on a fiscal cliff agreement.

Work on that sort of proposal comes on top of not only the most notable pieces of the year-end fiscal cliff but also an assortment of smaller tax and policy extensions that are only partially connected to the larger picture regarding marginal income tax rates and automatic spending cuts. Those include the regular ritual of blocking the alternative minimum tax from hitting middle-class taxpayers. The AMT was designed to ensure that upper-income taxpayers pay significant income taxes but was not indexed for inflation.

Likewise, senators have acknowledged a need to enact yet another “doc fix” to block implementation of scheduled payment cuts to medical providers treating Medicare patients.

“Well, we almost have to, because I think without it, that the reimbursement to providers goes down 25 to 30 percent. That could be devastating,” Durbin said last week of the doc fix. He clarified he was talking about a worst-case scenario in which Congress does not reach agreement on the expiring tax provisions and automatic spending cuts that make up the fiscal cliff.

Reid said Tuesday the to-do list also includes the emergency supplemental spending bill for recovery from superstorm Sandy, which appropriators are in the process of developing. The Senate also needs to tackle a reauthorization of surveillance authorities for the intelligence community and to reach a deal with the House on the fiscal 2013 defense authorization.

Also outstanding is a potential extension of federal farm policy. In a less transparent era, the defense bill, farm bill or the supplemental would be ideal vehicles for including extraneous provisions, but lawmakers in both parties have taken to opposing legislative “air-dropping” into conference reports and must-pass bills.

Kyl made that point in reference to the poker bill.

“You can’t put it on the FISA bill. You can’t put it on the ‘cliff’ bill, whatever that is, so a lot of it depends on how it all comes up,” Kyl said. “That’s not really, as they say in the military, the long pole in the tent right now.”

There is also no shortage of nominations still pending before the Senate for consideration, which are often put together in a large package at the end of the year and advanced by unanimous consent. On that front, optimistic senators continue to work on the assumption that the usual process will bear fruit. For instance, the Senate Finance Committee held a hearing Tuesday on new federal tax court nominees.

“Christmas is two weeks from today,” Reid reminded reporters Tuesday. He renewed what has become an all-too-common threat about not being able to finish Senate business in time for the holidays.

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