When Congress returns from Thanksgiving break, they’ll have a slate of legislative items they must pass — and others they may try to push through — by the calendar-year’s end.
Both chambers of Congress will be working in overdrive to try to avoid a government shut and default, both of which would be catastrophic for the economy, which has already been grappling with the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In addition, they will need to approve a must-pass national security package.
They have also signaled other legislative priorities, like pushing through President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better bill, a China competitiveness bill and other goals.
These are no small feat for any Congress, much less for one as nearly evenly divided — and contentious — as this.
Here’s what Congress needs to address in the rest of 2021 and other priorities that Democratic leadership may push for, too.
Government funding to avoid shutdown
Congress has until Dec. 3 to avoid a government shutdown, one of the largest financial hurdles facing lawmakers in the next few weeks.
In late September, Biden and Congress averted a government shutdown, just hours before a midnight deadline, by funding the government until the beginning of December.
A shutdown would furlough hundreds of thousands of nonessential federal employees, forcing them to take time off without pay. Essential functions such as the military, law enforcement and air-traffic control would continue functioning, but discretionary agencies such as the National Park Service would close.
At the time, Democratic leaders in the Senate were attempting to combine the spending and an increase in the nation’s ability to borrow money — the debt ceiling — but Republicans blocked that measure.
The last government shutdown lasted 35 days and started Dec. 21, 2018. It followed brief shutdowns in January and February 2018.
Raising debt ceiling to avoid default
Congress has been struggling to address the debt limit. This is despite the fact that raising the debt ceiling would cover expenses lawmakers in both parties have previously run up and now must be paid.
The House passed legislation in mid-October that raised the nation’s debt ceiling for several weeks, allowing the government to keep paying its bills and avoid the economic chaos that would come if the U.S. defaulted.
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen told lawmakers she estimated the U.S. would reach its debt ceiling by Dec. 15.
If the U.S. defaults on its debt for the first time, the results could lead to a global recession, Treasury Department officials and experts have said. A tanked market would hurt 401(k)s and other investments. For example, a debt ceiling standoff in 2013 cost the economy 1% in GDP.
The national debt is now approaching $29 trillion. The ceiling was extended to cover rising debt incurred by spending programs and tax cuts passed by Republican — and Democratic — controlled Congresses in the past.
GOP lawmakers said during the summer they wouldn’t help Democrats, who narrowly control Congress, to lift the ceiling because they’ve felt excluded from negotiations on Biden’s big-ticket spending proposals, like the Build Back Better Act.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., insisted then that Democrats address the issue by themselves through a legislative procedure called reconciliation, a maneuver that would allow Democrats to approve the bill without Republican support. Democrats said this option would be cumbersome and lead to long debates.
However, McConnell and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., met in person before the Thanksgiving break on the issue, with McConnell telling reporters they had a “good conversation.”
“We agreed to kind of keep talking, working together to try to get somewhere,” McConnell added.
NDAA: Must-pass defense policy bill
Before the end of the year, Congress will need to address the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), a must-pass national security package.
The NDAA is one of the most important pieces of military legislation passed by Congress each year, providing authorization of appropriation and spending for the Department of Defense and other defense-related issues and agencies.
The NDAA usually passes both chambers with bipartisan support. Around the end of 2020, both chambers of Congress overrode Trump’s veto of the 2021 NDAA — a rare rebuke in a divided Washington that underscored the importance of the legislation and its funding.
The 2022 NDAA passed the lower chamber in September and will be debated after the Thanksgiving break in the upper chamber — Senators adjourned prior to the recess amid hundreds of amendments being filed on the legislation.
The amended NDAA would then be kicked back down to the House for passage, before it lands on Biden’s desk for a signature.
The 2022 legislation includes an amendment that would require women to also sign up for the Selective Service — and thus the any drafts in the future — and several provisions to examine the war in Afghanistan, following the U.S. withdrawal and evacuation in August.
Schumer is also pushing to repeal the 2002 Iraq War authorization as part of the bill.
Build Back Better hurdles
Though House Democrats celebrated passing Biden’s Build Back Better Act just ahead of the Thanksgiving break, challenges lie ahead for the massive bill.
The legislation is a wide-ranging package of Democratic social spending priorities, which includes free preschool, initiatives to fight climate change and affordable housing programs.
Though it passed the lower chamber with a 220-213 vote, the legislation faces an uncertain future in the Senate.
This is despite Senate Democrats’ ability to pass it using a process called reconciliation, which bypasses a Republican filibuster. But Biden and Democratic leadership need the support of all 50 Democratic voting-senators — and Vice President Kamala Harris’ tiebreaking vote — to pass the bill that way.
They currently don’t have all 50 on board with the House-passed legislation.
Moderates Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia have yet to sign onto the nearly $2 trillion dollar bill and have flagged some areas of concern. They are part of the reason the bill started as a wish list that originally topped $6 trillion, then fell to $3.5 trillion and is now around $2 trillion.
It is likely to be changed in the upper chamber to gain the support of the two moderates. This would mean it would have to be voted on in the House again for it to make it to Biden’s desk for a signature.
Manchin has expressed some qualms with the bill, like the paid family leave provision. He has repeatedly said while he might support paid family leave separately, he doesn’t believe it belongs in the social spending bill.
“That’s a piece of legislation that really is needed from the standpoint: if we do it and do it right,” he told CNN’s “New Day” earlier in November. He added it should be bipartisan and with “regular order through the process,” instead of the budget reconciliation process.
Democrats had dropped their proposal to provide 12 weeks of paid family leave in late October due to Manchin’s concerns, but then added it in about a week later, scaled back to four weeks.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., an advocate for federally mandated paid family and medical leave, remained hopeful it might be included despite Manchin’s resistance. She told CBS News’ “Face the Nation” she thinks she and Manchin “can come together hopefully in the next couple of weeks on something that could be included in this package.”
“I’m hopeful that if I can use the next three weeks to really impress upon Sen. Manchin that some things can only be done with Democrats— only that now is the only time to do that, perhaps, in the next decade,” she continued.
It’s unclear where Sinema stands on the current legislation, telling POLITCO, “If you’re in the middle of negotiating things that are delicate or difficult … doing it in good faith directly with each other is the best way to get to an outcome.”
Schumer said during a news briefing earlier this week that “The House did a very strong bill. Everyone knows that Manchin and Sinema have their concerns, but we’re going to try to negotiate with them and get a very strong, bold bill out of the Senate, which will then go back to the House and pass.”
The leader said his party would like to finish the bill by Christmas.
Including immigration in BBB
Democrats have struggled to reach a consensus on sweeping immigration changes. They will be pushing through the end of the year to try and include some immigration provisions in the Build Back Better Act.
This comes in light of several setbacks in their attempts to include immigration proposals into Biden’s budget package. Advocates say time is running out to pass comprehensive reform before next year’s midterm elections.
In their effort to include a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in the budget package, Senate Democrats presented two proposals last month to Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough. Both were rejected on the premise the policy impact outweighed the budget impact.
MacDonough, a nonpartisan, unelected staff member, determines whether policies included in the reconciliation package abide by the Senate’s Byrd Rule, which states only policies that have a direct impact on the federal budget can be included.
The options to move forward on immigration are limited, and many advocates and some congressional Democrats see the reconciliation process as the best option in a divided Congress. They have urged Democrats to ignore MacDonough’s rulings and include the pathway to citizenship in the bill.
But Manchin has said he won’t vote to overrule the parliamentarian, telling Fox News he’s “not going to do that.”
Axios reported earlier this week that the parliamentarian has been meeting with Democratic staffers on a provision in the legislation: granting provisional work permits to about 6.5 million undocumented people and temporary protection from deportation.
The meeting was a hopeful sign for staffers of progress on that provision, as it was not ruled out, Axios reported.
The policy does not guarantee a pathway to citizenship like advocates and other Democratic lawmakers are calling for.
‘Safeguard our elections’: Voting rights
Schumer told his caucus earlier this month he would attempt to focus on voting rights before the end of the year.
The House has approved several pieces of voting rights bills, but Senate Republicans have blocked their advancement in the upper chamber this year.
The Freedom to Vote Act would expand early voting options, voter identification requirements and access to mail-in ballots and allow for same-day registration on election day. It was a scaled back piece of legislation from the For the People Act in an attempt to get some Republicans on board.
Earlier this month, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, was the only Republican to vote to advance another bill — the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act — which would replace part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down in 2013 and would aim to restore Justice Department review of changes in election law in states with a history of discrimination.
A USA TODAY analysis of 254 new laws in 45 states passed since then revealed a variety of changes voters may notice and other administrative changes happening behind the scenes. In total, about 55 million eligible voters live in states with changes that will give them less access.
Getting 10 Senate Republicans on board to pass any legislation would be a difficult feat. They have consistently argued federal changes to voting laws are unnecessary, and elections should be handled at the state level.
McConnell said in October that what Democrats have been wanting “to do forever is to have the federal government take over how elections are conducted all over America.”
But Schumer touted both the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, writing to Senate Democrats that the bills “work together to safeguard our elections and promote equitable access to the ballot, while fighting back against partisan gerrymandering and unaccountable dark money.”
“But just because Republicans will not join us doesn’t mean Democrats should stop fighting. This is too important. Even if it means going at it alone, we will continue to fight for voting rights and work to find an alternative path forward to defend the most fundamental liberty we have as citizens,” he continued.
He said Democrats “have been discussing ideas for how to restore the Senate to protect our democracy,” hinting at discussing changes to the filibuster.
But several Democrats oppose carving out or changing the filibuster, including Manchin and Sinema.
China competitiveness bill
Both chambers of Congress are likely to consider legislation aimed at reinvigorating America’s technological footprint to counter China and invest in semiconductor manufacturing.
The legislation — the United States Innovation and Competition Act — passed the Senate earlier this summer with bipartisan support but faced a murky future in the House, and the lower chamber never passed their own bill.
Now, both chambers are renegotiating the legislation.
Schumer last week sought to attach the bill to the NDAA, but the plan faced opposition from Senate Republicans.
Now, Pelosi and Schumer announced they would enter into formal negotiations on the legislation.
“Working with President Biden, the House and Senate have been crafting bipartisan legislation to bolster American manufacturing, fix our supply chains, and invest in the next generation of cutting-edge technology research,” the two said, adding: “There are still a number of important unresolved issues.
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