Congress braces for high-drama lame duck

Congress is returning to Washington this week for an end-of-the-year session that’s expected to be filled with high-stakes legislative fights and plenty of drama.

Lawmakers will be forced to juggle several crucial deadlines on must-pass pieces of legislation and unravel thorny policy fights, while also navigating political battles over leadership and a potential Cabinet shakeup.

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Both chambers are set to be in session for approximately four weeks once they reconvene on Tuesday, giving lawmakers little room for error as they race to wrap up their work for this session of Congress.

Here are five issues to watch:

Leadership fights

Republicans are mulling who will lead them starting in January as Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanNo time for the timid: The dual threats of progressives and Trump Juan Williams: Pelosi shows her power Cheney takes shot at Trump: 'I like Republican presidents who win re-election' MORE (R-Wis.) prepares to retire and the caucus comes to grips with their looming status as the minority party in the House.

Losing their majority in the chamber has created a chaotic, crowded race for the party’s top posts, with conservatives trying to flex their muscles in the leadership fights.

Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanWith extreme gerrymanders locking in, Biden needs to make democracy preservation job one Jim Jordan reveals he had COVID-19 this summer The Memo: Gosar censured, but toxic culture grows MORE (R-Ohio) is challenging Rep. Kevin McCarthyKevin McCarthyGOP eyes booting Democrats from seats if House flips With extreme gerrymanders locking in, Biden needs to make democracy preservation job one Greene: McCarthy 'doesn't have the full support to be Speaker' MORE (R-Calif.) for minority leader. Jordan, a founding member of the House Freedom Caucus, has the backing of conservative groups who have called for a leadership shakeup in the wake of Tuesday’s elections results.

House Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.), facing a challenge from Rep. Liz CheneyElizabeth (Liz) Lynn CheneyThe GOP's post-1/6 playbook is clear — and it's dangerous Trump allies leaning on his executive privilege claims Two Fox News contributors quit over Tucker Carlson's Jan. 6 documentary MORE (R-Wyo.), is not seeking another term in leadership. Rep. Steve ScaliseStephen (Steve) Joseph ScaliseThe GOP's post-1/6 playbook is clear — and it's dangerous House GOP seek to block Biden from reopening Palestinian mission in Jerusalem Hillicon Valley — Biden signs telecom security bill MORE (R-La.), after suggesting he could challenge McCarthy, announced his bid to be minority whip.

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House Democrats are having their own struggle as they return to the majority. House Democratic Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiFive reasons for Biden, GOP to be thankful this season Bipartisan success in the Senate signals room for more compromise The GOP's post-1/6 playbook is clear — and it's dangerous MORE (Calif.) has appeared confident she has the votes needed to return as Speaker, a post she held from 2007 through 2011.

The leadership contests on the Senate side are shaping up to be less dramatic.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellRepublicans seem set to win the midterms — unless they defeat themselves Graham emerges as go-to ally for Biden's judicial picks Five reasons for Biden, GOP to be thankful this season MORE (R-Ky.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerSchumer mourns death of 'amazing' father Feehery: The honest contrarian Biden administration to release oil from strategic reserve: reports MORE (D-N.Y.)  are expected to stay on as leaders of their respective caucuses.

Meanwhile, with Sen. John CornynJohn CornynMental health: The power of connecting requires the power of investing Senators call for Smithsonian Latino, women's museums to be built on National Mall Cornyn says he 'would be surprised' if GOP tries to unseat Sinema in 2024 MORE (R-Texas) term limited as majority whip, the rest of the leadership team will  try to move up the ladder, with Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneParnell exit threatens to hurt Trump's political clout Schumer-McConnell dial down the debt ceiling drama McConnell, Schumer hunt for debt ceiling off-ramp MORE (R-S.D.), currently the No. 3 GOP senator, viewed as Cornyn’s likely successor. Sen. Todd YoungTodd Christopher YoungOvernight Defense & National Security — Presented by Boeing — Senators to take up defense bill Wednesday Schumer: Time is 'now' to repeal Iraq War resolution It's time to give Medicare beneficiaries the opportunity and choice of recovery in the home MORE (R-Ind.) told The Associated Press that he is making a bid to be chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Government funding

Lawmakers have less than a month to prevent a partial government shutdown after Congress missed a Sept. 30 end-of-the-fiscal-year deadline to pass seven of the 12 individual appropriations bills.

Hanging over the talks are concerns about a shutdown fight over President TrumpDonald TrumpStowaway found in landing gear of plane after flight from Guatemala to Miami Kushner looking to Middle East for investors in new firm: report GOP eyes booting Democrats from seats if House flips MORE’s proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall.

The two chambers have been at a stalemate for months. The House’s funding bill for the Department of Homeland Security includes $5 billon for Trump’s wall; the Senate measure, by comparison, contains only $1.6 billion. With Democrats slated to take control of the House in January, the December fight could mark the best bargaining position Republicans have until January 2021 at the earliest, and only if Trump wins reelection.

Both McConnell and Schumer indicated this past week that the funding negotiations were ongoing, and both held back from establishing goal posts.

Schumer said talks about “border security” had been bipartisan and warned the president against interfering.

“On the general issue of border security, we've had great discussions in the appropriations process. They've been bipartisan. ... And I would hope that the president wouldn't interfere and we could get something good done,” Schumer told reporters.

Trump appeared to soften his long-running shutdown threat after Tuesday’s elections. He told reporters a shutdown wasn’t “necessarily” on the table but could be, pledging that the White House would be “fighting for” the wall.

Two other issues could throw up potential hurdles to government funding talks: Trump’s pledge last month to start cutting off aid to Central American countries in retribution for a migrant caravan and his decision to oust Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsThose predicting Facebook's demise are blowing smoke If bitcoin is 'digital gold,' it should be taxed like gold The metaverse is coming — society should be wary MORE.

Congress will have the chance to set the foreign aid levels in the funding bill they send to the president, which will need to include appropriations for the State Department and foreign operations, one of the seven bills lawmakers failed to pass by Sept. 30.

Retiring GOP Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeRubio vows to slow-walk Biden's China, Spain ambassador nominees Senate confirms Thomas Nides as US ambassador to Israel Flake, Cindy McCain among latest Biden ambassadors confirmed after delay MORE (Ariz.) on Friday opened the door to trying to get legislation to protect special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerAn unquestioning press promotes Rep. Adam Schiff's book based on Russia fiction Senate Democrats urge Garland not to fight court order to release Trump obstruction memo Why a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG MORE into the final appropriations bill if it can’t pass as a standalone measure. Neither approach seems achievable given opposition from GOP leadership.

Nominations

High on the to-do for the lame-duck session are dozens of executive and judicial nominations as Senate Republicans have homed in on their ability to confirm Trump’s nominees.

Cornyn, asked before the recent recess what was on the post-election agenda, quipped: “Nominations, more nominations.”

Republicans have confirmed Trump’s judicial picks, particularly nominees for the influential circuit courts, at a breakneck pace during the first two years of his administration, even setting a record for the number of appeals judges confirmed.

They’re expected to continue that work with dozens of judicial nominees awaiting a Senate floor vote, and the Senate Judiciary Committee held two controversial hearings during the October recess to advance judicial nominations.

“We're going to do everything we can to get you through before the end of this year,” Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchLobbying world Congress, stop holding 'Dreamers' hostage Drug prices are declining amid inflation fears MORE (R-Utah) told the nominees at one of the hearings.

The hardball tactics have infuriated Democrats, who say Republicans are sidestepping Senate norms in order to stack the courts with young, conservative judges. Democrats, who nixed the filibuster for most court nominations in 2013, are unable to block a nominee without help from Republicans.

Looming over the Senate’s work on Trump’s nominees are concerns about a possible Cabinet shakeup in the final months of the year.

Sessions was the first Cabinet member to go after the midterms when Trump announced on Twitter the day after the elections that he had been ousted. Since then, Washington has been abuzz with chatter about who could be next. Trump is reportedly considering dismissing Commerce Secretary Wilbur RossWilbur Louis RossBannon's subpoena snub sets up big decision for Biden DOJ House panel, Commerce Department reach agreement on census documents China sanctions Wilbur Ross, others after US warns of doing business in Hong Kong MORE before the end of the year.

It’s unlikely that there is enough time on the Senate calendar for the chamber to vet, debate and vote on a Cabinet nominee, and waiting until 2019 could benefit McConnell. Depending on the results of the Senate races in Arizona, Florida and Mississippi, Republicans are expected to have between 51 and 54 seats, potentially giving them a larger margin to clear controversial nominees.

Criminal justice reform

Lawmakers are expected to make a renewed effort to pass a criminal justice reform bill by the end of the year after punting the issue into the lame-duck session.

Advocates for the proposal are hoping it has new momentum after McConnell pledged before the midterms that he would measure support for legislation and bring it to the floor if it can get the 60 votes needed to pass.

If McConnell brings a bill to the Senate floor it would mark a significant victory for a bipartisan group of senators who tried, unsuccessfully, for years to get a vote amid opposition from a small but vocal wing of the Republican caucus. Trump adviser and son-in-law Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerKushner looking to Middle East for investors in new firm: report Watchdog finds no money has flowed out of agency tasked by Trump admin to fight pandemic Watchdog cites 13 Trump officials who violated Hatch Act before 2020 election MORE has also prioritized the ongoing negotiations to merge prison reform and sentencing reform, and he’s been at the center of the Senate talks.

A GOP aide told The Hill earlier this month that the senators involved in talks were “close to a deal,” while two Senate aides stressed that there was not finalized legislative text yet. A spokesman for Grassley, asked on Friday if text had been finalized, said talks remained ongoing.

The tentative agreement, according to a copy of draft legislation viewed by The Hill, would pair a House-passed prison reform bill with some sentencing reforms, including reducing lifetime mandatory minimum sentences after two prior felony drug convictions to at least 25 years; reducing minimum sentences after one prior conviction from 20 to 15 years; and making the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive.

It also would expand an existing safety valve for mandatory minimum sentencing, but would not apply retroactively, according to the draft seen by The Hill.

Farm bill

Lawmakers are aiming to wrap up the mammoth agriculture bill by the end of the year after the Sept. 30 deadline passed without a compromise.

At the center of the disagreement is a stalemate over tightening requirements for food stamps, an idea being pushed for by House Republicans and Trump. The bill, which passed the House along party lines, would impose new work requirements on the food stamps program and tighten overall eligibility for federal assistance.

But the idea has run into a buzzsaw in the Senate, where leadership needs 60 votes — meaning some Democratic support — to clear the bill. The Senate’s legislation, which passed the chamber in July, didn’t include the new food stamp requirements.

McConnell told reporters in Kentucky that negotiators are focused on trying to get a farm bill by the end of the year. But, he said, the food stamp changes are mucking up the talks.

“We just have to compromise,” he said. “That’s the part that is a little tricky, but we’ll get there.”

Trump signaled last week that he still wants the work requirements, and he’s blaming Democrats for the holdup.

“We could have it very fast without the work rules, but we want the work rules in and the Democrats just don’t want to vote for that. So at some point, they’ll have to pay maybe a price,” Trump said.