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Congress returns to immigration, student loans, farm bill; issues splitting Democrats, Republicans

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FILE: June 20, 2013: House Speaker John Boehner at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.AP

Congress returns to Washington this week to face several key issues including the farm bill, student loans and immigration reform -- topics expected to create tension between and among Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate.

The Democrat-controlled Senate reached a bipartisan deal late last month to pass sweeping legislation on immigration reform. But the bill faces a more uncertain future in the Republican-led House, where security along the U.S.-Mexico border remains a major concern.

The contentious issue about how secure borders must be before giving some of the country’s 11 million illegal immigrants a path to citizenship resurfaced Sunday when Idaho Republican Rep. Raul Labrador expressed his concern.

Labrador, a Tea Party favorite and immigration lawyer, told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that illegal immigration has to be cut by a “large percentage” before such legislation can pass, considering a continued influx on non-citizens amid a new law would hurt the Republican base and cause Hispanics to “lose faith in us.”

He also implied a new Congressional Budget Office report showing the final Senate bill that which would cut illegal immigration by as much as half was not enough.

Conservatives from safe House districts have rebuffed appeals from Republicans who argue immigration overhaul will boost the party's political standing with Hispanics and others in the increasingly diverse electorate, especially in the 2016 presidential election.

However, conservatives strongly oppose any legislation offering legalization to immigrants living here illegally.

House Speaker John Boehner and other Republicans have said the Senate bill is a nonstarter in their chamber. Boehner also has recently suggested he’ll follow the will of the chamber’s Republican majority, not the majority of House members that would include Democrats, when deciding whether to call for a vote on immigration.

Republicans plan to discuss their next steps at a private meeting Wednesday.

The House Judiciary Committee has adopted a piecemeal approach to immigration reform -- approving a series of bills but none with the path to citizenship that President Obama and fellow Democrats are seeking.

A more pressing concern for some lawmakers is the fate of the five-year, half-trillion-dollar farm bill.

The House last month rejected the bill, with 62 Republicans voting no after Boehner urged support for the measure.

House conservatives wanted cuts deeper than $2 billion annually, or about 3 percent, in the almost $80 billion-a-year food stamp program. Democrats were furious with a last-minute amendment that would have added additional work requirements to food stamps, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said an extension of the current farm law, passed in 2008, is unlikely and is pressing the House to pass his chamber’s version of the bill. The current policy expires Sept. 30.

Congress also must figure out what to do about interest rates on college student loans, which on July 1 doubled from 4.3 percent because of partisan wrangling in the Senate.

Republicans want the rates on the federally funded Stafford loans tied to market factors, saying politicians toying with the rates creates uncertainty among students and their families.

Democrats say poor and middle-class students cannot afford to have the rates return to the pre-2007 level of 6.8 percent, which would increase the average cost of a loan by $2,600. And they say Republicans, when trying to improve the economy, should instead look at closing tax loopholes for the wealthy.

A compromise in the form of a one-year extension on the rate could be reached before school starts in the fall and new loans begin.

The cooperation in the Senate during the passage of the immigration bill could be wiped out immediately if Reid, frustrated with GOP delaying tactics on judges and nominations, tries to change the chamber rules by scrapping the current three-fifths majority for a simple majority.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has indicated it's a decision Reid could regret if the Republicans seizes Senate control in next year's elections.

Democrats in 2014 will have to defend 21 seats, compared to 14 for Republicans.

McConnell envisioned a long list of reversals from the Democratic agenda, from repealing Obama's health care law to shipping radioactive nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain in Reid's home state of Nevada.

In addition, recently elected Democrats have clamored for changes in Senate rules as Obama has faced Republican resistance to his nominations.

The GOP has, for example, challenged Obama's three judicial nominees to the powerful U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Congress also faces political and economic fights over the budget, with the fiscal year ending Sept. 30 and Congress plodding through spending bills with no sign of being done on time.

In addition to legislation to keep the government running, Congress probably will have to vote on whether to raise the nation's borrowing authority, a politically fraught vote that roiled the markets in August 2009.

Three Senate committees will consider Obama nominees for major national security positions this month, confirmation hearings certain to set off a political dust-up over the president's policies.

Questions about the administration's policy toward Syria and plans to arm the rebels in their civil war with President Bashar Assad's forces will dominate the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the re-nomination of Gen. Martin Dempsey for chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The hearing is scheduled for July 18.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is expected to hold a hearing on Samantha Power, the president's pick for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and a subcommittee meets July 11 to consider the nomination of Victoria Nuland for assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs.

That posting typically wouldn't draw a great deal of attention, but senators are certain to press Nuland about her work on the widely debunked talking points about the deadly assault on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya. Four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, were killed in the Sept. 11 attack last year.

Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations at that time, used the talking points five days after the attack, blaming the assault on a spontaneous protest over an anti-Islamic video.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.