As Congress returns from its Thanksgiving break this week, Democratic lawmakers face a daunting to-do list that includes avoiding a government shutdown at the end of the week, advancing President Joe Biden’s economic agenda and raising the federal debt ceiling — and they have just a handful of legislative days left on the calendar to get it all done before leaving town for the winter holidays.
Here’s a rundown on some of the major items that Congress needs to tackle in the next two or three weeks:
* Avoid a government shutdown after December 3: The most pressing issue — the threat of a government shutdown when short-term funding expires at the end of this week — may prove to be the easiest problem to solve. With little time left to work out the details of a full-year bill, lawmakers are expected to kick the can down the road once again and pass a continuing resolution that maintains current funding for a few more weeks. The main question is how long the short-term funding bill will last, with Democrats pushing for a stopgap that provides funding for just a few weeks, in order to keep the pressure on Republicans to continue to negotiate a longer-term package that contains elements of Biden’s agenda.
Republicans say they want a short-term bill that lasts into March or later. And while some bomb-throwers among the GOP are saying the funding deadline provides a good opportunity to fight Democrats’ spending plans — “Dec 3rd the government runs out of money & the big push will be funding the Dems Communist agenda,” Georgia Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene tweeted over the weekend — negotiators are expected to come up with a compromise soon, with late January or early February looking like a possible endpoint.
* Authorize defense spending: The National Defense Authorization Act has been lingering on a backburner for weeks, but the Senate was expected to start pushing the $768 billion defense policy bill forward on Monday. Republicans, however, signaled that they would block a procedural vote as they press for more votes on amendments to the massive legislation. “I will oppose cutting off these important debates prematurely, when they have really just begun,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell announced on the Senate floor.
The House passed its version of the bill in September, but the Senate version has been delayed by lingering disputes. Issues that still need to be resolved include pay increases for members of the military, as well as amendments addressing a requirement for women to register for the draft and a repeal of the 2002 authorization for the war in Iraq. Another reason for the delay in advancing the typically bipartisan bill was its inclusion of the $250 billion U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, which provides funds intended to increase U.S. competitiveness with China. That bill will now be addressed separately.
* Raise or suspend the debt ceiling: Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has warned that the federal government may have trouble paying all of its bills after December 15, though analysts at the Bipartisan Policy Center — and at least one Republican lawmaker, Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah — say that the so-called X-Date could come weeks later, in early February. However, unless Yellen changes her outlook, expect lawmakers to push for some kind of solution to the debt limit problem in the next two weeks.
Negotiators have made little progress, though, and The Hill’s Alexander Bolton reports that Democrats and Republicans in the Senate cannot agree on how to proceed. Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) does not want to raise the debt ceiling through budget reconciliation, a time-consuming process that could eat up a week or more of floor time in the upper chamber. At the same time, McConnell has warned that Republicans will filibuster any attempt by Democrats to vote under regular order, which would allow them to raise or suspend the limit with a simple majority, pushing the deadline past the midterm elections.
Most analysts agree that GOP lawmakers are pushing for the political advantage they see from forcing Democrats to raise the debt ceiling to a particular number rather than suspend it, with the latter option not allowed under the rules of reconciliation.
Expect this issue to heat up as the December 15 deadline approaches. “The debt limit is the only leverage Republicans have this whole Congress,” GOP strategist Brian Darling told The Hill. “If they give it away and get nothing for it, it’s going to be a huge embarrassment.”
* Complete the Build Back Better bill: The House passed the roughly $1.7 trillion bill containing much of the president’s agenda before Thanksgiving, and now the fate of the Build Back Better Act lies largely in the hands of a few centrist Democrats in the Senate, including Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.
Manchin has expressed concerns about specific provisions in the bill, including the expansion of paid family leave and Medicare hearing coverage, as well as the possibility that additional federal spending could contribute to the recent surge in inflation. While Sinema has kept her concerns largely private, Manchin’s could result in the bill being reduced in size and scope, and perhaps delayed as the senator waits to see how the economy performs in the coming weeks and months. While Schumer says that his goal remains to pass the bill before Christmas, Manchin reportedly believes that next year is more likely.
The state and local tax (SALT) deduction is another issue that could delay the bill. Led by lawmakers from high-tax blue states, the House included an increase in the SALT deduction cap from $10,000 to $80,000, which would provide a tax windfall to some high-income households. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), chair of the Budget Committee, wants to impose an income threshold on the SALT deduction cap so that the very rich do not benefit.
The Senate parliamentarian could be another hurdle for Democrats. Relying on the budget reconciliation process allows Democrats to proceed with no help from Republicans, but it also opens their plan up to the threat of being overruled by the Senate’s legislative judge, who can declare one or another provision to be in violation of the requirement that a reconciliation bill be directly related to budgetary issues. Provisions related to immigration are of particular concern, with the parliamentarian ruling that earlier versions involved policy changes that fall outside the scope of the budget.
No Republicans in the Senate are expected to back the bill, and GOP lawmakers are expected to pressure wavering Democrats to reject certain provisions within it. “We have an entire Republican conference who wants to do everything we can to defeat it,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) said on “Fox News Sunday.”