The brinksmanship and squabbling that have characterized the 112th Congress aren't going to take a holiday in December. If anything, after the collapse of the much-hyped "super committee," Congress has an unusually busy — and potentially very ugly — set of budget fights before Christmas. Here are five items that the House and Senate have on their daunting to-do list as they return for a "wild final month" of 2011:
1. Avert a government shutdown
The biggest item Congress has to tackle is its "most basic function: Funding for a government that has had to live with the uncertainty of endless stop-gap measures for the past 14 months," says David Rogers at Politico. The most recent short-term budget expires Dec. 16, and Senate Democrats are proposing rolling all 2012 spending bills into a $1 trillion omnibus bill. That'll be thorny, says Chad Pergram at Fox News. House GOP leaders have vowed to pass each appropriations bill separately and deliberately. They haven't, and with the clock running down, "the House GOP may have to swallow hard" and pass a spending super-bill to avoid a shutdown.
2. Unemployment insurance
With the unemployment rate hovering around 9 percent, Congress has extended the usual 26 weeks of unemployment benefits to up to 99 weeks. But unless lawmakers extend the payments, more than 2 million uninsured workers will be out of luck by mid-February. Republicans want tens of billions in spending cuts to pay for the proposed unemployment benefit extension. It's certainly laudable to demand offsets, says Fox News' Pergram, "but the optics of voting against the unemployed at Christmas is a different enterprise altogether."
3. Dueling jobs bills
The super committee had been dead only hours before "President Obama was already calling for Congress to enact elements of his $447 billion jobs plan," says Mike Lillis at The Hill. Democrats argue that Obama's stymied proposals would "jump-start the economy and bring down unemployment." Republicans counter that the Democrat-controlled Senate is, in House Speaker John Boehner's (R-Ohio) words, sitting on "more than 20 bipartisan jobs bills passed by the House."
4. A payroll tax cut
A top priority for Obama and congressional Democrats is an extension — or even expansion — of the payroll tax holiday that expires Dec. 31. Employees paid 4.2 percent in Social Security payroll taxes this year, and without congressional action, that rate will climb to 6.2 percent in 2012. Obama actually wants to lower that tax to 3.1 percent, which would save the average family $1,500. But this is one tax cut the GOP is unenthusiastic about. They might go along with it, but at a price, and the Democrats' proposal to pay for the tax holiday with a surtax on millionaires is a nonstarter.
5. The Medicare "doc fix"
"Politicians of both parties outdo each other vying for the approval of seniors," but they've still "put Medicare in the crosshairs again" by not dealing with a looming 27 percent cut in government reimbursements for doctors who take Medicare patients, says the AP's Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar. Every year since 2003, Congress has patched that growing gap with a "doc fix." The super committee was supposed to solve this problem by readjusting the payment schedule, but now it's up to Congress to sort out how to pay for this year's multibillion-dollar gap-filler. "There's not a lot of time to play ping-pong," a lobbyist tells the AP. "It's entirely possible given past performance that Congress misses the deadline."