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Election-Year Politics Shape Congressional Agenda

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Congress returns to work Monday with election-year politics certain to shape an already limited agenda.
 
Republicans intend to focus on every facet of President Barack Obama's health care law. They see a political boost in its problem-plagued rollout. 
 
First up in the House, according to Majority Leader Eric Cantor, is legislation addressing security of personal data.
 
Democrats will press to raise the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour and extend unemployment benefits. It's an effort to cast Democrats as more concerned than Republicans with the less fortunate. 
 
The issues resonate with liberals, the core Democratic voters crucial in low-turnout midterm elections. 
 
The Senate has scheduled a vote Monday on a three-month extension of unemployment benefits. 
 
A vote also is expected on Janet Yellen to become Federal Reserve chairman. 

Yellen is a long-time advocate of fighting unemployment and a backer of the central bank's recent efforts to spur the economy with low interest rates and massive bond purchases. She was expected to win easy approval in Monday's vote.
 
She would replace Ben Bernanke, who is stepping down after serving as chairman for eight years that included the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009 and the Fed's efforts to combat it. 
 
Yellen, an economist, has been vice chair of the Fed since 2010 and a close ally of Bernanke. 
 
She would begin her four-year term as leader of the Fed on Feb. 1.  (AP)

Nevada Senator Harry Reid spoke on the Senate floor today marking the beginning of the second session of the 113th Congress and emphasizing the importance of extending unemployment benefits. Below are his remarks as prepared for delivery:

Welcome back. I am optimistic that the New Year will bring a renewed spirit of cooperation to this chamber.

Last year, the United States Senate passed a number of momentous pieces of legislation, including comprehensive immigration reform, a budget agreement and a bill to prevent workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation. But there is also a great deal left undone.

Today we will address two pressing matters held over from 2013: the nomination of Janet Yellen to lead the Federal Reserve, and the extension of unemployment benefits for 1.3 million Americans still struggling to find work.

Instead of celebrating the beginning of a new year on January 1, more than a million Americans – including 20,000 veterans and 18,000 Nevadans – were left wondering how they would feed their families and make their mortgage payments while they continue to look for jobs. Today there is only one job opening for every three people searching. And the long-term unemployment rate is twice as high as it was any other time we have allowed emergency unemployment benefits to end.

What's more, failing to extend unemployment insurance won't just be a hardship for out-of-work Americans. It will also be a drag on our economy. Allowing this important lifeline to lapse will cost 240,000 jobs. By contrast, helping Americans out while they search for full-time employment is one of the most efficient ways to support economic growth. Each dollar we spend on unemployment insurance benefits increases gross domestic product by $1.50, according to leading economists.

And in 2012 alone, half a million children were kept out of poverty by unemployment benefits. That's one reason it's outrageous that Congress allowed this program – which helps tens of millions of American families with millions of children get by each year – to lapse in December. Today the Senate has a chance to correct that terrible omission.

Just before Christmas, my colleague from Nevada – a Republican – joined with the senior Senator from Rhode Island – a Democrat – to propose an extension of unemployment insurance for 1.3 million Americans who lost benefits last week. I commend these two Senators for their compassionate stance on this issue.

The Senate will vote to move forward with the Reed-Heller bill this evening.  I hope a few reasonable and empathetic Republicans will join my colleague from Nevada and help us advance this bill today.

Passing this measure is one of the best things we can do for our economy. And it is a cost-effective way to immediately address some of the worst consequences of growing income inequality in this nation.

Another way to raise millions of Americans out of poverty is to increase the minimum wage to make it a living wage. When a mother or father working two or three jobs still can't afford groceries and rent in the same month, it's a sign something is wrong in this country.

Last year, the top 1 percent of households took home more than one-fifth of the nation's income – breaking a record set in 1928. And over the last three decades that same 1 percent of families has seen its income triple. Meanwhile, wages for middle-class families have actually fallen, while the cost of housing, food and gas has gone up.

The fact is, the rich keep getting richer, the poor keep getting poorer and the middle class is under siege. This country cannot afford to allow the gap between the fabulously wealthy and those who are barely getting by to keep growing. That's why Democrats will renew our efforts to address poverty and economic disparities in 2014.

I congratulate wealthy Americans on their good fortune. This is a country of opportunity. But I also believe it is time for the middle class to share in the success of our economic recovery.

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