Congress returns for a packed lame-duck session even as election votes continue to be counted. It’s clear that Democrats will keep a hold on the Senate and Republicans are likely to take control of the House — with a slender majority that portends lots of headaches for party leadership. It’s less clear how lawmakers will address the need to fund the government beyond December 16, which may be the most pressing item on the year-end agenda.
“Because the [funding] legislation must be passed, it could attract additional measures that Democrats want to clear during the lame duck session,” CNN notes. “For example, additional financial support for Ukraine as it continues to defend itself against Russia. While that funding has bipartisan support, some conservatives – such as Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the top House Republican who is expected to become speaker if his party eventually wins the chamber – are balking at the pricey contributions and are vowing to scrutinize more closely additional requests from the Biden administration, a dynamic that is dividing Republicans.”
NBC News notes that, among the other lingering questions “is whether the Justice Department will get the $34 million it says is ‘critically needed’ to continue its criminal investigation of the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021.”
The White House and Democrats also want additional funding for Covid-19 vaccines, treatments and testing but that money isn’t likely to be included in any year-end package.
Beyond government funding, the to-do list before the 118th Congress is sworn in on January 3 remains long.
The Senate is set to vote this week on the bipartisan Respect for Marriage Act, which would codify same-sex marriage rights. Senate lawmakers are also reportedly likely to take up bipartisan election security legislation meant to make it harder to overturn the certified results of a presidential contest.
Congress must pass the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, which sets the Pentagon’s policy agenda and authorizes funding for the Defense Department.
Dealing with the debt limit? Then there’s the debt ceiling. The U.S. Treasury is expected to hit its $31.4 trillion borrowing limit at some point next year, meaning that the limit needs to be raised to avoid a market-rattling threat of default. Republicans have raised the prospect of using the debt limit as leverage to force Democrats to agree to spending cuts, but Democrats may look to defuse the issue before it can blow up into a full-fledged crisis. Both House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said this weekend that they will look to address the debt ceiling in the coming weeks.
“Our best shot, I think, is to do it now,” Pelosi said on ABC’s “This Week.”
Schumer was less definitive. The debt ceiling is “something that we will look at over the next few weeks,” he told reporters. When asked about Pelosi’s comments, he said: “I’m going to sit down and talk to my caucus about broadening the agenda for the lame-duck session.”
Avoiding Medicare cuts: Congress must also step in to prevent Medicare cuts that are set to take effect as the result of pay-as-you-go budget rules that require the cost of new legislation — in this case, the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 — to be offset. “Congress routinely waives such cuts, but the issue became a political hot potato last year. Lawmakers instead punted the problem into 2022, with Republicans unwilling to help Democrats stave off the slices caused by passage of their massive party-line bill,” Politico says. “Now, it seems lawmakers will quietly handle the issue before the end of the year.”
Republicans in disarray: Much of the focus this week and this month will be on internal leadership races. As Republicans digest disappointing election results and their intraparty sniping continues, House GOP members will have to decide whether Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California will be their candidate for speaker. McCarthy reportedly may face challenges is getting the 218 votes he’ll need to be named speaker. That House drama comes as former President Donald Trump is poised to announce another run for the presidency, though his planned Tuesday kickoff comes as many in the GOP are blaming him for the party’s election failings.
The bottom line: Lawmakers must fund the government and pass the annual defense authorization bill before the end of the year — and they have just 16 legislative days left.