Congress heads back to D.C. for a hectic lame-duck session
The biggest question mark on Capitol Hill remains whether Speaker Nancy Pelosi will step aside from the role of top House Democrat. (Win McNamee | Getty Images)
WASHINGTON – Congress returns to Capitol Hill and a lengthy to-do list next week, following a six-week midterm elections break that saw Democrats outperform expectations and Republicans barely inch toward the U.S. House majority.
On the agenda are same-sex marriage legislation, a huge defense bill, changes in how presidential electoral votes are counted and more.
The lame-duck session, a brief period between the election and the new Congress convening in January, is typically marked by lawmakers either doing the bare minimum, or pushing through dozens of bills in an attempt to finish work they’ve left until the end in hopes of securing party-line priorities during a hectic few weeks.
This year’s lame duck is likely to be the latter. Democrats will be looking to wrap up numerous must-pass bills before heading home for the December holidays. And with control of both the U.S. House and U.S. Senate undecided as of Friday afternoon, the next few weeks could become a bit of a roller coaster.
Here are the five top things to tackle during the last few legislative weeks of the 117th Congress:
Paying the bills: Congress approved a short-term government funding bill in September, giving themselves through Dec. 16 to reach a bipartisan, bicameral agreement on spending totals for the fiscal year that began on Oct. 1 and to draft the dozen annual appropriations bills.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Thursday the Biden administration would like that package to include more funding to help communities recover from natural disasters, additional money to address COVID-19 and more aid to help Ukraine defend itself against Russia.
If Congress can’t reach an agreement on the full-year spending bills, it can pass another short-term funding bill into next year.
Defense authorization: Lawmakers would like to pass the annual defense policy bill, known as the National Defense Authorization Act, during the lame-duck session.
While the legislation isn’t essential for the Pentagon’s funding (that’s the defense appropriations bill in the item above), the NDAA sets sweeping policy for the U.S. Department of Defense. Congress has completed the measure for the last 61 years, a streak neither political party wants to break.
One possible snag will be behind-the-scenes discussions about whether to attach an energy permitting reform bill that West Virginia Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin III tried to get to President Joe Biden’s desk in September.
Jean-Pierre said Thursday the White House believes that should move within the defense policy bill, though lawmakers have expressed some skepticism.
Iowa Republican Sen. Joni Ernst, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in late September she doesn’t want a permitting reform bill tacked onto the defense policy bill, saying the focus should remain on defense-related amendments.
“So to have one that’s not germane be placed upon the NDAA would probably create some heartache,” Ernst said.
Electoral count process: The U.S. House and a key U.S. Senate panel both gave their nod of approval to overhauling the Electoral Count Act in September, though the two chambers need to work out their differences before a bill can head to Biden’s desk.
U.S. House lawmakers voted, 229-203, to approve a bill that would raise the number of members needed to object to certifying a state’s electoral votes for president and clarify the vice president’s role in the process is purely ceremonial.
The Senate bill is somewhat similar, though it has broader bipartisan backing than the House version, which garnered the support of only nine Republicans.
The version approved by the U.S. Senate Rules and Administration Committee would also reinforce the vice president’s role as ceremonial and increase the number of Congress members needed to object to a state’s electoral college votes.
The current standard is one House member and one senator. The Senate bill would increase that to one-fifth of members from both chambers, while the House version proposes increasing it to at least one-third of both chambers.
Same-sex marriage bill: The U.S. House voted, 267-157, in July to pass a bill that would ensure same-sex couples’ marriages are recognized, if the U.S. Supreme Court were to overturn the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges opinion that legalized same-sex marriages nationwide.
The bill has been stalled in the U.S. Senate ever since.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer was on track to bring it up before the midterm elections, but held off at the request of Sens. Tammy Baldwin, a Wisconsin Democrat; Susan Collins, a Maine Republican; Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican; Kyrsten Sinema, an Arizona Democrat; and Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican.
“We are confident that when our legislation comes to the Senate floor for a vote, we will have the bipartisan support to pass the bill,” they wrote in a September letter explaining the delay.
The bill also protects interracial marriages in the event the U.S. Supreme Court were to overturn the 1967 Loving v. Virginia decision that voided state laws making it illegal for interracial couples to marry.
Leadership elections: A tried and true tradition of every lame-duck session is electing, or more often reelection of, leaders in the U.S. House and U.S. Senate.
The biggest question mark on Capitol Hill remains whether Speaker Nancy Pelosi will step aside from the role of top House Democrat, clearing the way for another lawmaker to take over that position.
Pelosi agreed during the last round of leadership elections that this would be her last term in that role, though an attack on her husband earlier this month inside their San Francisco home might have changed her calculations about her political future.
“I have to say my decision will be affected about what happened the last week or two,” she said on CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360” this week when asked whether she had made a final decision about stepping aside or staying on.
House Republicans were on track to elect California Rep. Kevin McCarthy as their next speaker and Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise as their leader next week, but it’s unclear if that could change given the undecided nature of the midterm elections.
Indiana Rep. Jim Banks and Minnesota Rep. Tom Emmer are competing for the role of Republican whip – a job that could be especially demanding if the GOP continues on the path to an especially narrow majority. Whoever wins that title will be tasked with ensuring at least 218 members of the party stay in line on what will amount to hundreds of votes over two years, an unenviable task.
In the U.S. Senate, party leadership likely won’t change.
New York Sen. Chuck Schumer is expected to continue on as Democratic leader with Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin as whip. Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell will likely stay on as Republican leader with South Dakota Sen. John Thune as whip.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, however, called for a delay to his party’s elections next week, tweeting Friday that, “First we need to make sure that those who want to lead us are genuinely committed to fighting for the priorities & values of the working Americans (of every background) who gave us big wins in states like #Florida.”
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