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Sunday December 15th, 2019 8:56PM

Challenge for Congress: Consider Kavanaugh, keep lights on

By The Associated Press
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WASHINGTON (AP) — Keep the government running and confirm Brett Kavanaugh as the next Supreme Court justice. Those are the big-ticket items that Republican leaders in Congress hope to accomplish as lawmakers look to wrap up their work and head home to campaign for the November elections.

Democrats want to keep the government open, but they also are fighting to derail the nomination of Kavanaugh, the second Supreme Court nominee from President Donald Trump.

Other items on the agenda when Congress returns Tuesday: passing a farm bill, renewing federal aviation programs, and grilling social media executives about foreign interference in their operations and whether they are biased against conservatives, as Trump has alleged.

Republican leaders are expected at the White House on Tuesday for a meeting with Trump on their goals.

A look at what's coming up on Capitol Hill:

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REPLACING JUSTICE KENNEDY

The Senate Judiciary Committee begins confirmation hearings for Kavanaugh, a federal appeals court judge, on Tuesday with his introduction and opening statements from lawmakers. Questioning of the nominee will begin the next day and testimony from the American Bar Association, outside legal experts and those who know him best will follow.

Trump nominated Kavanaugh to succeed Justice Anthony Kennedy, considered the swing vote on some of the most important issues decided in recent years. Democrats are worried that Kavanaugh's confirmation will cement a right-leaning court for many years to come. They contend his elevation could lead the court to restrict a woman's right to choose an abortion, equal rights for gays and lesbians and environmental protections.

With liberal advocacy groups adamantly opposed to Kavanaugh and Democrats wanting to fire up their base for the coming election, Senate questioning will be aggressive and opening statements forceful. But Republicans with their 50-49 majority have the edge.

___

KEEPING THE GOVERNMENT OPEN

Lawmakers face a Sept. 30 deadline to pass spending bills to keep the government open.

The House and Senate have both approved a series of measures, but have not agreed on a unified bill that could go the president's desk.

Lawmakers hope to approve at least three compromise bills that fund a large portion of the government, including the military and most civilian agencies, before the new budget year begin Oct. 1.

In a shift from previous years, the Senate has approved nine of 12 mandatory spending bills, enough to fund nearly 90 percent of the government. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., called that "an important step forward" and evidence that "Congress is in good hands" under GOP majorities in the House and Senate.

Still, lawmakers from both parties remain wary of a government shutdown, which Trump has threatened unless he gets a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Democrats have resisted Trump's plan to spend $25 billion to fulfill that key Trump campaign promise.

A shutdown just weeks before the November elections would be the third under unified Republican control of Washington, following stoppages in January and February. That prospect has provoked widespread anxiety among Republicans facing tough re-election fights.

Trump has called a possible shutdown "a great political thing, because people want border security."

___

NEGOTIATING A FARM BILL

Congress has until Sept. 30 to reauthorize farm programs that, among other things, provide payments to farmers when prices for major crops decline. Pleas from farm groups for action come as they deal with the Trump administration's decision to use tariffs as leverage in trade disputes; major trading partners have responded with tariffs of their own on farm products from the U.S.

The farm bill also would extend food aid for low-income Americans. House-passed legislation significantly tightens existing work requirements for aid recipients, an approach Trump has said he hopes makes it into the final bill. But the Senate version takes a more bipartisan approach and makes only modest changes to the food stamps, formally known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Led by Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., House Republicans have dug in on retaining work requirements in the bill. The two sides will begin hammering out a solution on Wednesday, when lawmakers start negotiating a compromise that can pass both chambers.

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SOCIAL MEDIA EXECUTIVES IN THE HOT SEAT

Executives at some of the biggest social media companies will be on the hot seat in separate hearings this month.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook's chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg are scheduled to testify Wednesday before the Senate intelligence committee. Lawmakers want to know how their companies are dealing with efforts by Russia and other countries to influence social media platforms and interfere in U.S. elections.

Dorsey is set to testify later Wednesday before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which wants to know how Twitter monitors and polices content. Conservatives complain that Twitter is limiting their reach on the web, a cry that Trump has taken up.

The first hearing is part of the Senate committee's Russia investigation. The committee is expected to issue additional reports in the coming weeks, including one on Russia's interference on social media.

The committee has so far delayed a report on whether Trump's campaign colluded with Russia; that report could come by the end of the year.

___

FEDERAL AVIATION ADMINISTRATION

Congress also has until Sept. 30 to extend FAA programs that fund airport and air traffic system improvements.

If the FAA's authority were to expire, it would still continue to operate the nation's air traffic system and controllers would work without pay. But some of the agency's other work would come to a halt.

The House passed a bill extending FAA activities for five years back in April, but action stalled in the Senate amid a dispute over rules for meals and rest breaks for truckers. The chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said lawmakers were pursuing "all potential avenues to get the bill on the president's desk" and signed into law before the deadline.

The Senate bill includes new consumer protections, authority for developing new drone policies, safety enhancements and funding for aviation infrastructure.

___

Associated Press writers Catherine Lucey and Juliet Linderman contributed to this report.

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