This week: Congress races to wrap work for the year

Lawmakers will start returning to Washington on Monday as they scramble to wrap up their work for the year and lay the groundwork for the incoming Biden administration. 

The Senate will return on Monday, with the House not scheduled to hold its first votes of the week until Wednesday. 

Much of the action will be off of the floor this week. Congress is juggling a looming deadline for funding the government with unresolved fights over a fifth coronavirus relief bill and a mammoth defense policy measure. 

Meanwhile, President Trump, who has said he will leave the White House if the Electoral College certifies President-elect Joe Biden’s win, is a wild card over much of the year-end action and battle lines are growing over some of Biden’s top personnel picks. 

Lawmakers have a matter of days, until Dec. 11, to craft a government funding agreement and avoid a holiday shutdown. Leaders of the House and Senate Appropriations committees reached a deal over the Thanksgiving recess on top-line figures for each of the fiscal 2021 bills, a key stepping stone to a larger deal. 

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) said before the break that he intended to sit down with Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), his House counterpart, once Congress returned. 

Without a deal by Dec. 11, Congress would need to pass a continuing resolution, which extends funding at fiscal 2020 levels, either for a matter of days to give themselves time to finalize an agreement or until early next year, if it seems they aren’t close. 

The need for quick action on funding the government comes amid no signs of movement on a fifth coronavirus relief deal, despite cases climbing across the country and some states and cities reimposing restrictions in an effort to curb the spread of the disease. 

Public health experts expect initial distribution of a vaccine by the end of the year, but economists are warning that, given the deep and far-reaching fallout from the virus, another round of assistance is needed to help stabilize the economy and provide relief to hard-hit small businesses. 

Senate Republicans have dug in on their push for a smaller, roughly $500 billion bill, similar to two proposals already blocked by Democrats. Meanwhile, Democratic leadership has pointed to $2.2 trillion as the starting point, though several lawmakers have opened the door to a lower figure. 

Former White House Chief Economist Austan Goolsbee told CNN’s “Inside Politics” that Democrats should accept a smaller deal if necessary.

“So if they have to accept half a loaf, then they should accept half a loaf, and then let’s try to get another half of a loaf,” he added. “But right now is really touch and go, and I wish both sides could see that.”

GSA briefing

General Services Administration (GSA) Deputy Administrator Allison Brigati is slated to conduct a 30-minute briefing to the House committee chairs and ranking Republican members on Nov. 30 to discuss the presidential transition process. 

The briefing comes in the wake of top Democrats on the committees of jurisdiction sending a letter to GSA Administrator Emily Murphy calling for a briefing on why she had not yet signed off on the process. Murphy subsequently ascertained Biden as the winner of the election last week. 

Staff for the Senate Appropriations, Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs and Environment and Public Works committees are also slated to receive an in-person briefing.

While the GSA has offered the 30-minute briefing, House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), Lowey, and subcommittee chairs Reps. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) and Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) slammed the agency’s offer as falling short on providing the information they feel is sufficient, calling for a briefing from Murphy.   

“We cannot wait yet another week to obtain basic information about your refusal to make the ascertainment determination,” said a letter sent to Murphy on Monday, Nov. 23. “Every additional day that is wasted is a day that the safety, health, and well-being of the American people is imperiled as the incoming Biden-Harris Administration is blocked from fully preparing for the coronavirus pandemic, our nation’s dire economic crisis, and our national security.”

The briefing comes as President Trump has still refused to concede in the election, though he’s said he’ll leave the White House if the Electoral College makes Biden’s win official, with a growing number of GOP lawmakers calling on the president to accept the results of the election. 

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of GOP leadership, declined to call Biden the president-elect during an interview with CNN, but said that he and lawmakers responsible for planning the inauguration are “working with the Biden administration, likely administration, on both the transition and the inauguration as if we are moving forward.”  

“We are certainly moving forward as if that [is] what is going to happen on January the 20th,” Blunt said. 

Kelly swearing-in

Sen.-elect Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) is expected to be sworn in this week after the result of his Senate race against GOP Sen. Martha McSally is certified on Monday. 

Kelly, who is married to former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), told an Arizona PBS station that he expects to be sworn in on Tuesday or Wednesday, a move that will narrow the GOP’s majority to 52-48. 

Medical marijuana

The House is slated to take up legislation aimed at decriminalizing marijuana on the federal level, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) announced.

The MORE Act — introduced in the House by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) — would “eliminate criminal penalties for an individual who manufactures, distributes, or possesses marijuana.” 

The measure — which was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), the vice president-elect — also includes language requiring the Bureau of Labor Statistics to publish data on the demographics of cannabis business owners and employees, and would create a trust fund to support programs “impacted by the war on drugs,” and would place a 5 percent sales tax on cannabis products, with the proceeds being placed in the trust fund.

Under the legislation, the Small Business Administration would be able to make loans and services “available to entities that are cannabis-related legitimate businesses or service providers.” It would also create a process to conduct sentencing reviews and expunge convictions of federal cannabis offenses and charges.


Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has teed up several nominations on the Senate floor. 

Senators will take an initial vote on Taylor McNeel’s nomination to be a district judge on Monday evening, paving the way for confirmation on Tuesday. 

After that the Senate will vote on J. Philip Calabrese’s nomination to be a district judge, Kyle Hauptman’s nomination to be a member of the National Credit Union Administration Board and Kathryn Davis’s nomination to be a judge on the Court of Federal Claims. 

McConnell also changed his vote on Judy Shelton’s nomination to serve on the Federal Reserve Board, a procedural move that clears the way for him to bring back up her nomination. 

Shelton’s nomination was scuttled before the Thanksgiving recess after coronavirus-related absences and GOP opposition left her short of the support needed to be confirmed. With three GOP senators opposed to her, McConnell would need to have Shelton voted on before Kelly is sworn in, unless he’s able to seize on a Democratic absence or get a GOP senator opposed to her to change their vote. 

Tags Biden Cabinet picks Carolyn Maloney Coronavirus relief bill Donald Trump Gerry Connolly government funding Jerrold Nadler Jerry Nadler Joe Biden Mark Kelly Martha McSally Mike Quigley Mitch McConnell Nita Lowey nominations Richard Shelby Roy Blunt Steny Hoyer

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