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This week: Senate returns amid post-election uncertainty

The Senate is returning to Washington as the country barrels into an unpredictable post-election stretch. 

The Senate returns on Monday to kick-start its lame-duck session. The House will be back next Monday, Nov. 16. Both are expected to be out of town the week of Thanksgiving and want to wrap up their work for the year by mid-December.

Congress has a long to-do list after punting several items until the end of the year, including funding the government and trying to get a fifth coronavirus deal. 

Hanging over all of that is the uncertainty surrounding President Trump and the administration, as the president has so far not conceded the election and his legal team has vowed a long legal fight in several states won by President-elect Joe Biden

Republicans will face a nonstop litany of questions about whether Trump should concede, his baseless claims that the election was stolen and what they expect from a Biden administration. 

As Trump is pledging to fight on, most Republican senators have been careful not to get ahead of him. Only two - Sens. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) - have congratulated Biden on his victory. 

Notably, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and most members of his leadership team have not publicly commented since The Associated Press and other news organizations called the race for Biden late Saturday morning. 

Asked if he would acknowledge that Biden had won, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of GOP leadership who is responsible for overseeing the inauguration, stopped short, though he acknowledged the outcome of the race was unlikely to change. 

"It's time for the president's lawyers to present the facts, and it's time for those facts to speak for themselves," Blunt said.

"Almost every state within seven to 10 days of the election goes through that entire canvas. There are always some changes. Seems unlikely that any changes could be big enough to make a difference, but this is a close election. We need to acknowledge that," he added. 

As Trump has so far refused to concede the race, General Services Administration Administrator Emily Murphy, who was nominated by Trump and confirmed unanimously by the Senate, has so far not signed a letter declaring an "apparent winner," a designation that will give Biden's transition team access to government officials and office space, The Washington Post reported on Sunday. 

Other GOP lawmakers are urging Trump's legal team to lean into its pledge of legal fights, and mirrored the president's unsupported narrative of voter fraud. 

Trump's campaign has filed several lawsuits to challenge the results in a few battleground states after the president spent months spreading false claims that mail-in ballots could open the election up to fraud. 

"If Republicans don't challenge and change the U.S. election system, there will never be another Republican president elected again," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Sunday on Fox News. "President Trump should not concede."

Candidates who won Senate elections are expected to be in the Capitol this week for orientation. 

Democrats, meanwhile, are already turning their attention toward a Biden administration. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) called Biden on Saturday to congratulate him. 

What the makeup of Congress will be when Biden takes office is unclear. Though the House will be controlled by Democrats, the Senate majority is up for grabs, with two races in Georgia going to early January runoffs.

Schumer, in a statement on Biden's win, urged supporters to help flip the two Georgia seats. That would give Democrats the majority because Vice President-elect Kamala Harris could break a 50-50 tie.  

"Senate Democrats are going to do everything we can to help him get things done to help the American people - most immediately by gaining a majority in the Senate," Schumer said in the statement.

Lame-duck agenda 

Congress is returning with two major legislative priorities: funding the government by a Dec. 11 deadline and trying to get a deal on a long-stalled fifth coronavirus deal. 

Though both McConnell and Pelosi say they want an agreement on coronavirus aid, as cases climb across the country, they remain deeply split over the details of what should be in any deal. 

McConnell, speaking in Kentucky late last week, doubled down on wanting a smaller bill. The GOP leader, who has let the administration take the lead in talks with Democrats, is reportedly expected to be more hands-on in the final stretch of the year. 

McConnell, in Kentucky, called the unemployment rate falling to 6.9 percent "stunning" and said the third-quarter gross domestic product number "indicates that our economy is really moving to get back on its feet." 

"That I think clearly ought to affect what size of any rescue package we additionally do. I do think we need another one but I think it reinforces the argument that I've been making ... that something smaller rather than throwing another $3 trillion at this issue is more appropriate, with it highly targeted toward things that are directly related to the coronavirus," McConnell told reporters

Senate Republicans have rallied around a roughly $500 billion package that would include more money for schools and testing, another round of Paycheck Protection Program aid and liability protections against coronavirus-related lawsuits. 

They've also spent weeks panning the higher price tag of $1.8 trillion and subsequently $1.9 trillion that was backed by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows. Trump had suggested he was willing to go even higher. 

Talks have not restarted between congressional Democrats and the White House. In a potential shift, White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow indicated to reporters that the administration is currently focused on speaking with McConnell. 

Pelosi, speaking during a weekly press conference on Friday, shot down the prospect of doing a smaller bill. 

"It doesn't appeal to me at all, because they still have not agreed to crush the virus. ... So, no, that isn't anything that we should even be looking at," Pelosi said. 

The dueling priorities for a deal come as McConnell and Pelosi will have to work out a deal to fund the government. 

Both have said they want to do an omnibus, which would wrap all 12 full-year bills together, rather than a continuing resolution, which would continue funding at fiscal 2020 levels. 

Congress also still needs to negotiate and pass a final National Defense Authorization Act. Both the House and Senate passed versions earlier this year that included language requiring the changing of Confederate-named bases, something that has sparked a veto threat from Trump. 

Leadership elections

Both parties are expected to start laying the groundwork for the next Congress by holding their leadership elections.

Most of the leadership team is likely expected to stay the same and McConnell and Schumer are expected to be reelected by their caucuses to be GOP leader and Democratic leader, respectively. Who will ultimately be majority leader next year is unclear with two runoff elections in Georgia on Jan. 5 expected to determine which party controls the chamber. 

Both parties will need to elect new campaign chairs for the upcoming cycle, where Republicans will be defending at least 22 seats and Democrats will be defending at least 12. Whomever wins the Georgia special election runoff will also need to defend that seat in 2022. 

Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who joined the Senate in 2019, is running to be chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. 

Nominations

McConnell has teed up a vote on a judicial nomination to kick-start the Senate's floor schedule this week. 

The Senate will hold a procedural vote on James Knepp's nomination to be a district judge for the Northern District of Ohio. That would pave the way for a final vote on Tuesday. 

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