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Gridlock in Congress could leave millions hurting over the holidays

PoliticsLaws and LegislationJobs and WorkplaceCrime, Law and JusticeUnemployment BenefitsBudgets and BudgetingU.S. Government Shutdown (2013)

WASHINGTON — Congress' unfinished business threatens to leave millions of Americans — including the unemployed, Pentagon contractors and even supermarket shoppers — in the lurch this holiday season.

With partisan dysfunction unlikely to subside in coming weeks, lawmakers appear ready to punt several issues into the new year. But many Americans could start feeling the effects of inaction as early as this month.

An estimated 1.3 million Americans will lose federal emergency unemployment benefits after Christmas if the program is not renewed. Federal aid kicks in after state benefits run out, typically after six months of unemployment.

On Monday, Rep. Sander M. Levin of Michigan stood in a nearly empty House chamber with a poster of a countdown clock ticking away the days until the emergency jobless aid expires.

"Twenty-five days and 10 hours," said the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee. "Who are they? They are Americans laid off through no fault of their own, struggling to find jobs and recover from the worst economic crisis in 70 years."

With days left before Congress adjourns for the year, his bill to extend the benefits has not even had a hearing and is not scheduled to get a vote.

Congress' failure to renew a multiyear farm bill — considered crucial to the agricultural industry — poses a two-pronged problem.

Without action, milk prices are set to skyrocket in the new year because the legislation plays a role in how some commodities are priced. It could drive the price of a gallon of milk above $8, from about $3.50 today, according to some estimates.

But if Congress does reach agreement, it would almost certainly result in cuts to food stamps, kicking up to 4 million Americans off the program under the House Republicans' version of the bill.

That's because Republicans insist on slashing food stamps, which skyrocketed during the economic downturn. Democrats are offering only modest trims to food stamps, also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Rebecca Dixon, a policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project, said cutting food stamps as millions of Americans lose their unemployment benefits "would really be like a one-two punch for the most vulnerable."

Progress toward a broader government budget compromise to avoid another possible shutdown next month has also slowed. Republicans are rejecting any tax increases to close a budget gap, while Democrats refuse more spending reductions unless new revenue is on the table.

Hopes for a grand budget compromise have evaporated. Even a more modest package to avoid the next round of automatic "sequester" cuts seems out of reach.

The bipartisan budget committee that is trying to stave off another shutdown appears no closer to reaching an agreement by its Dec. 13 deadline.

Without a deal by Jan. 15, funding for the government will run out. Under the sequester law, the Pentagon and almost every other government agency will see budgets slashed to lows that will chisel away at the nation's fragile economic growth.

With just seven workdays left in the House — and possibly fewer in the Senate — there is little time to tackle unresolved issues, and many lawmakers appear more interested in capitalizing on the politics of the moment.

On Monday, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) announced four more Obamacare oversight hearings this week as Republicans continue their relentless assault on the new healthcare law.

"I think the House, especially, has become a totally dysfunctional place when it comes to doing the business of the American people," Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said Monday on MSNBC.

lisa.mascaro@latimes.com

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