Congress has a full plate when it returns to Washington, D.C. on Monday, January 6, and time is short — only 29 working weeks to deal with two rounds of appropriations, raise the debt limit, complete the farm bill, and revamp the tax code, according to a BGOV report this week.  Legislating time will be interrupted by the usual “district work periods” plus an additional five-week election break.  Congressional leaders also want to renew major infrastructure and education laws, prop up the U.S. Postal Service; and restore the trade-negotiation mechanisms. In addition, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said he plans to schedule action on legislation seeking information on the security of data in the government’s health-insurance exchange.

Highlights of the work ahead in 2014 include:

APPROPRIATIONS: The most pressing task for returning lawmakers will be to make appropriations for the current fiscal year, a task eased by the passage of the budget agreement.  The deadline is January 15, when the current continuing resolution expires. It is unclear whether Republicans who oppose President Obama’s health-care law will reject an omnibus that includes funds to run the agencies that implement that law.

DEBT LIMIT: Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew has said that his department can avoid default for about a month after the suspension of the debt ceiling ends on February 7.  Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), said December 17 that he could not imagine that the party would back an increase in the debt limit without demanding some conditions.  House Republicans will work on their debt-limit strategy during the party’s retreat in Cambridge, Maryland, January 29-31. Part of their discussion will involve concessions they may seek to extract from the White House and Senate Democrats.

ETHANOL: The Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) mandate requiring use of conventional ethanol would be removed under legislation that Senate Appropriations Energy and Water Subcommittee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), said she is drafting with Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn. The draft bill would leave RFS advanced biofuel requirements, require 15 billion gallons of conventional corn ethanol, and 21 billion gallons of advanced ethanol in the nation’s motor fuel supply by 2022.

 FARM BILL: Senate and House negotiators are hoping to announce an agreement early this month on the multi-year bill. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow said that negotiators had “pretty much” agreed on the nutrition funding part of the bill, which had been a major point of contention between the House and the Senate.  The latest extension of farm and food aid programs expired at the end of 2013. If Congress fails to act, the dairy program will revert to a 1949 statute that would, when fully implemented, result in a doubling of the wholesale price of milk.

CHAIRMANSHIPS: Look for changes at the top of key Senate committees, a game of musical chairs prompted by Obama’s nomination of Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT)  to be ambassador to China.  If Baucus is confirmed, Ron Wyden is in line to take the helm of Finance.

WATER PROJECTS: Senate and House negotiators continue efforts to reach an agreement on water-projects legislation.  Before lawmakers left for the holiday break, outstanding issues that still had to be resolved included how to handle authorization of dredging, environmental restoration, and flood control projects.

HIGHWAY BILL: Transportation committees will devote much of the year drafting legislation to reauthorize highway programs, which expire at the end of fiscal 2014.  One of the key issues is how to bridge the anticipated shortfall in the highway trust fund, which is currently supported by gasoline taxes.  Ideas that could be considered include raising the 18.4 cent-per-gallon gas tax, which has not been increased since the administration of President Bill Clinton, or adopting a fee that takes in vehicle miles traveled, reducing a tax advantage for drivers of hybrid vehicles and electric cars, reports Bloomberg’s Derek Wallbank.

IMMIGRATION: Speaker John Boehner has said he’s sticking with a piecemeal approach to changing the immigration system.  Bills to watch include H.R. 2131, which would provide more visas for highly skilled immigrants, H.R. 1773 that would provide for more agricultural guest workers and yet-to-be-introduced legislation that would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as minors.  The Senate passed a multi-faceted bill, S. 744, that would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in addition to addressing worker visas and border security.

Work on those bills and more resumes next week. The Senate is scheduled to return Monday and the House is to be back on Tuesday.