Washington Watch for Sunday, Dec. 15, 2013

The U.S. House finally caught the holiday spirit and came together to approve a two-year budget deal on an overwhelming 332-to-94 vote in order to avoid another government shutdown in mid-January.

No one seemed particularly thrilled with the deal. The theme was to essentially suck it up and accept the compromise. But compromise they did.

Now, the pressure is on the U.S. Senate to approve the same budget deal this week before taking its Christmas vacation.

The problem is the Senate is ablaze with infighting after Democrats — frustrated with what they call record levels of GOP obstructionism — opted to choose the “nuclear” option in order to approve presidential and judicial nominees with a simple majority vote of 51 senators, instead of the filibuster-breaking 60 votes.

So the Senate spent much of the past week pulling all-nighters to approve a backlog of appointments while angry Republicans used up as much time as possible to force Democrats to make late-night votes.

Louisiana’s U.S. Sens. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, and David Vitter, a Republican, had hoped to get a “unanimous consent” vote on a bill to authorize much-delayed, expanded veterans health care clinics in Lafayette, Lake Charles and 25 other locations in the nation. The House approved the bill earlier in the week.

But the feuding over presidential nominations will push the VA clinic effort into next week, leaving veterans in southwestern Louisiana nervous about yet another delay.

Meanwhile, the U.S. House — satisfied with coming together on the budget — chose to start its vacation early and call it quits for the year after the budget vote late Thursday.

In doing so, the House opted not to address two key issues — fixing the National Flood Insurance Program and finally approving a federal farm bill that expires at the end of the year.

The congressional fight to delay skyrocketing flood insurance rates in Louisiana and the rest of the nation hit a partisan divide this past week with U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, seemingly securing a floor vote on a new bill he filed to delay some of the rate hikes.

But some proponents of a more comprehensive fix, which Cassidy also backs, criticized his bill for not doing enough and for potentially undermining the more comprehensive legislation.

Cassidy was expecting a vote either Thursday or Friday, but that potential was nixed when House leaders opted to end their legislative work for the year after the budget vote.

“It’s deeply disappointing that the Flood Insurance Relief and Transparency Act was not brought to the floor,” Cassidy said in a prepared statement. “The bill would have brought relief to millions of people across the country, including 400,000 people in Louisiana. This remains one of my top priorities, and I will continue to work with both sides of the aisle to make sure we help those impacted.”

A long-shot effort by Landrieu and others to get the more comprehensive bill approved last week in the Senate also failed.

And that leaves the farm bill, which remains mired in a negotiating conference committee, and is keeping Louisiana farmers sweating with a lack of certainty and stability in their industries.

It appears that the bill will maintain support for Louisiana sugar and rice farmers, but the bill still needs to be finalized. The big sticking point remains spending levels for the Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program — food stamps — on which Republicans and Democrats remain sharply divided.

The current bill expires after December, so Congress will have to act quickly in January after opting against approving even a 30-day extension of the law.

New Congressman Vance McAllister, R-Swartz, has a new seat on the House Agriculture Committee. The extra time lets him delve into the details a little more, but he said he also wanted to tell constituents the farm bill was finalized before the end of the year.

“We need a farm bill,” McAllister said. “We need it to go (through) and, hopefully, the momentum we’ll get from passing this budget will carry over to passing a bipartisan farm bill.”

Jordan Blum is chief of The Advocate Washington Bureau. His email address is jblum@theadvocate.com.