WASHINGTON Congress is frantically trying to wrap up its 2012 session, with the fates of storm victims, farmers, the military, jobless workers and others highly uncertain.
The current Congress will go out of business at noon Jan. 3. The Senate plans to debate aid to victims of Hurricane Sandy starting today, and there's hope that defense-policy legislation will get final approval before the end of this month.
Prospects for a farm bill and aid for the long-term unemployed are not as bright.
Such routine matters traditionally aren't the stuff of last-minute deliberations. But this latest bout of dysfunction is typical of this two-year Congress, one that was unusually polarized from the start.
"No question this has been the least-productive Congress in contemporary history," said Thomas Mann, of Washington's Brookings Institution.
The scorecard looks like this as the 112th Congress' final minutes tick off the clock:
Farm bill: The law that governs payments to farmers and sustains many other agriculture-related programs expired in September, and the two chambers are stuck in negotiations about how to proceed. In the meantime, revisions to key programs that provide protection from droughts and other emergencies are at risk. One of the major disputes involves cuts in spending on food stamps. Both parties want to cut back the program, but Democrats have proposed cutting far less than Republicans have.
Defense: Both houses of Congress have passed versions of legislation spelling out defense policy changes, but nothing is final until negotiators and then both chambers agree on a single bill. An agreement could come this week. One major dispute involves Iran. The Senate takes a tougher line, listing action that can be taken against Iran. The House is more general, urging "all necessary measures" if Iran issues a nuclear threat against the U.S. or its allies.
Disaster relief: The White House is seeking $60.4 billion to help victims of Hurricane Sandy. Though Senate debate will proceed this week, the timing of any final action is uncertain. Such legislation used to pass almost automatically. But in recent years, conservative Republicans have demanded spending reductions elsewhere to pay for the aid.
Jobless benefits: What used to be automatic providing additional aid to the long-term unemployed has become a struggle.
The benefit maximum will be capped at six months at the end of the year unless Congress acts. Many Republicans insist that any extension be paid for. Democrats argue that in an economic emergency, the aid shouldn't be subject to such rigid rules.