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Congress to tackle NSA reforms, government funding in waning days

NSA reforms, the Keystone pipeline and funding the government are all expected to be part of a final legislative push

WASHINGTON — Although the GOP-controlled House and Senate elected earlier this month in the midterms is waiting in the wings, the 113th Congress is back from recess and still has the floor. The Republican-led House and Democratic-led Senate will move on some critical agenda items and take up hot-button issues before it adjourns in December. Here are a few matters before the lawmakers:

Funding government

Funding for the federal government expires on Dec. 11. To avoid another government shutdown, lawmakers must come to an agreement on a spending measure. Republican and Democratic leaders are pushing for a long-term omnibus bill, which would fund the government through the fiscal year ending in September 2015 and ensure the next Congress can start fresh. Others are pushing for a continuing resolution, which would keep the government functioning for a few months until the next Congress adjourns in early 2015, giving the next term (and the newly GOP-led Senate) more control over spending.   

Some Republicans are spoiling for a fight over President Barack Obama’s planned use of executive actions to address immigration. Led by Arizona Republican Rep. Matt Salmon, 59 House members have signed a letter urging Republican leaders to pass a measure that withholds money “for the implementation of current or future executive actions that would create additional work permits and green cards outside of the scope prescribed by Congress.” Senate Democrats would not go along with such a bill, setting the stage for another spending showdown.

Battling Ebola

Obama has asked for $6.2 billion to continue to fight the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and shore up resources in the United States. That request is likely to be addressed in another spending bill.

Reforming the NSA

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has moved to advance a bill that would that would rein in the National Security Agency’s mass surveillance programs. The USA Freedom Act would bar the government from the bulk collection of metadata of telephone records — one of the programs exposed by former federal contractor Edward Snowden in 2013. Data would instead be held by phone and Internet companies, and intelligence agencies would be able to obtain records only through a special court. In addition, the legislation would add civil liberties advocates to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The advocates would be tasked with presenting arguments to counter the government’s.

The bill, sponsored by Senate Judiciary Chairman and Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy, has gained the backing of civil liberty advocates and key figures in the intelligence community, although it’s unclear if it would clear the 60-vote threshold needed to advance through the legislative process.

Fighting ISIL

In a postelection press conference, Obama invited Congress to explicitly endorse his administration’s military campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant by updating the 2001 Authorization of the Use of Military Force or issuing a new one. The administration says it is within the president’s authority to carry out strikes on ISIL unilaterally, but a vote in Congress would be of symbolic and political significance. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said last week that it would “send a very clear signal to our allies around the globe that Congress and the White House are united in this effort.” A final vote is unlikely until next year.

Keystone pipeline

After years of delays, largely because of environmental concerns, Democrats may be ready to approve the Keystone pipeline, which would transport crude oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast. Democratic leaders say the pipeline’s approval, a popular prospect in oil-dependent Louisiana, may help embattled Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, who is headed into a difficult run-off with her Republican opponent, Bill Cassidy. In what was described as a Hail Mary move, Landrieu took to the Senate floor on the first day of the lame-duck session to plead for a vote on the measure.

Confirming nominees

Reid hopes to tackle a long list of presidential appointments for executive branch positions and judicial nominations — 150 in all, according to The Associated Press. Getting Obama appointees confirmed has been an uphill battle during the 113th Congress. The current list includes 16 federal district court judgeships, 31 ambassadorships, surgeon general nominee Vivek Hallegere Murthy — who was opposed by Republicans earlier this year because he supports gun control — and Obama’s high-profile pick for attorney general, Loretta Lynch. Reid has only five weeks to act, with other time-consuming legislation to consider.

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