Fiscal deadlines fade for months as Congress to shift focus

As Congress returns this week to confront immediate budget issues that have consumed the debate in Washington, lawmakers are preparing to pivot to topics such as immigration, gun control and energy policy.

A barrage of fiscal challenges, including a March 27 deadline for extending funding for the federal government, will yield to matters that could prove just as fractious.

This week, in the final days before a two-week recess, legislators are expected to extend federal spending through Sept. 30 to avoid a government shutdown. The House and Senate anticipate adopting separate, partisan budget plans for the next fiscal year that they won’t attempt to quickly reconcile.

By legislating to the least-common denominator, Congress over the past three months will have avoided an across-the-board income tax increase, prevented a default on the nation’s debt and sidestepped a shutdown. While automatic spending cuts will remain in place and government worker furloughs will start, Congress won’t be up against a fiscal deadline until a debt ceiling increase is needed in August.

“We have two or three issues that are substantive issues - - immigration, guns as examples -- that are moving forward, and I hope that we bring them to the floor,” Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, the chamber’s second-ranking Democrat, said in an interview last week. “Fiscal problems are big problems, but there are other challenges in America.”

Pipeline Bill

In the House, Republicans announced plans to pass a bill by the end of May approving the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada that would run through part of the U.S. Representative Fred Upton, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said he wants to advance that and other measures before Congress takes up 2014 spending bills in June.

“It’s the time that we do our work,” said Upton, a Michigan Republican.

The Republican-controlled House has passed a bill to extend government funding through Sept. 30. The Senate is considering its version this week and is expected to send it back to the House well before the March 27 deadline.

When they finish work this week, lawmakers will return to their districts for a recess during the Passover and Easter holidays.

After that, no major fiscal deadline will approach for several months. Technically, the U.S. will hit the federal debt ceiling in mid-May, under a law passed earlier this year to delay default.

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