Immigration, student loan top congressional agenda

By Donna Cassata

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, July 7 2013 1:34 p.m. MDT

Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee said Republicans would be hashing out "two key hot spots" in Wednesday's meeting: the pathway to citizenship and health care.

"We need to be the party of solutions and not always obstructing. And, so, I think there's an effort here that we have a broken immigration system. We need to fix this immigration system," McCaul said Sunday on CBS' "Face the Nation," predicting that the full House could take up immigration as early as this month and representatives from both chambers could be working to resolve differences in the House and Senate versions late this year or early next.

The House Judiciary Committee has adopted a piecemeal approach, approving a series of bills, none with a path to citizenship that Obama and Democrats are seeking. Democrats hope the single-issue bills get them to a conference with the Senate, where the prospects for a far-reaching overhaul improve.

"I think what you're finding is that there will be a compromise, a smart compromise," said Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., said Sunday, also on CBS. "You have to be smart. You have to be tough. But you have to be fair. And if you can do that, you'll have a full fix."

A more pressing concern for some lawmakers was the fate of the five-year, half-trillion-dollar farm bill.

In a surprise last month, the House rejected the bill as 62 Republicans voted no after Boehner had urged support for the measure.

House conservatives wanted cuts deeper than $2 billion annually, or about 3 percent, in the almost $80 billion-a-year food stamp program while Democrats were furious with a last-minute amendment that would have added additional work requirements to food stamps, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

Reid has made it clear that an extension of the current farm law, passed in 2008, is unlikely as he presses the House to pass the Senate version of the bill. That leaves Boehner to figure out the next step before the current policy expires Sept. 30.

Congress also must figure out what to do about interest rates on college student loans, which doubled from 3.4 percent last Monday because of partisan wrangling in the Senate.

Lawmakers promised to restore lower rates when they return this week, both retroactively and before students start signing loan documents later this summer. For now, the rate stands at 6.8 percent, which is higher than most loans available from private lenders.

Congress faces political and economic fights over the budget, with the fiscal year ending Sept. 30 and Congress plodding through spending bills with no sign they will be done on time. The House is set to vote this week on the spending bill for the Energy Department.

In addition to legislation to keep the government running, Congress probably will have to vote on whether to raise the nation's borrowing authority, a politically fraught vote that roiled the markets in August 2009.

Three Senate committees will consider Obama nominees for major national security positions this month, confirmation hearings certain to set off a political dust-up over the president's policies though the criticism is unlikely to scuttle the selections.

Questions about the administration's policy toward Syria and plans to arm the rebels in their civil war with President Bashar Assad's forces will dominate the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the re-nomination of Gen. Martin Dempsey for chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The hearing is scheduled for July 18.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is expected to hold a hearing on Samantha Power, the president's pick for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and a subcommittee meets July 11 to consider the nomination of Victoria Nuland for assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs.

That posting typically wouldn't draw a great deal of attention, but senators are certain to press Nuland about her work on the widely debunked talking points about the deadly assault on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya. Four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, were killed in the Sept. 11 attack last year.

Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations at that time, used the talking points five days after the attack, blaming the assault on a spontaneous protest over an anti-Islamic video.

The Senate Judiciary Committee holds a confirmation hearing Tuesday on Obama's choice of James Comey to serve as FBI director. If confirmed by the Senate, Comey, a top Bush administration lawyer best known for defiantly refusing to go along with White House demands on warrantless wiretapping nearly a decade ago, would replace Robert Mueller.

The administration's recently disclosed surveillance programs are likely topics for Comey's hearing.

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