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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 RyanBiden's inauguration marked by conflict of hope and fear The Hill's 12:30 Report: Sights and sounds from Inauguration Day Revising the pardon power — let the Speaker and Congress have voices 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 JordanBiden's inauguration marked by conflict of hope and fear The Hill's 12:30 Report: Sights and sounds from Inauguration Day McCarthy won't back effort to oust Cheney MORE (R-Ohio) is challenging Rep. Kevin McCarthyKevin McCarthyBiden attends first church service as president in DC, stops at local bagel shop House GOP leader says he has 'concerns' over Cheney's impeachment vote McCarthy says he told Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene he disagreed with her impeachment articles against Biden 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 CheneyFive examples of media's sycophancy for Biden on inauguration week House GOP leader says he has 'concerns' over Cheney's impeachment vote Cheney tests Trump grip on GOP post-presidency MORE (R-Wyo.), is not seeking another term in leadership. Rep. Steve ScaliseStephen (Steve) Joseph ScaliseBoycott sham impeachment The Memo: Biden gambles that he can do it all Biden under pressure to deliver more COVID-19 shots 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 PelosiBiden attends first church service as president in DC, stops at local bagel shop More hands needed on the nuclear football Sunday shows preview: All eyes on Biden administration to tackle coronavirus 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 McConnellBiden attends first church service as president in DC, stops at local bagel shop Harry Reid 'not particularly optimistic' Biden will push to eliminate filibuster Senators spar over validity of Trump impeachment trial MORE (R-Ky.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerCapitol insurrection fallout: A PATRIOT Act 2.0? Schumer calls for DOJ watchdog to probe alleged Trump effort to oust acting AG Student loan forgiveness would be windfall for dentists, doctors and lawyers MORE (D-N.Y.)  are expected to stay on as leaders of their respective caucuses.

Meanwhile, with Sen. John CornynJohn CornynThe Memo: Biden gambles that he can do it all Trump impeachment trial to begin week of Feb. 8 Limbaugh falsely says Biden didn't win legitimately while reacting to inauguration 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 ThuneThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden's crisis agenda hits headwinds Senate chaos threatens to slow Biden's agenda NRSC chair says he'll back GOP incumbents against Trump primary challengers MORE (R-S.D.), currently the No. 3 GOP senator, viewed as Cornyn’s likely successor. Sen. Todd YoungTodd Christopher YoungThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden's crisis agenda hits headwinds Bipartisan Senate gang to talk with Biden aide on coronavirus relief Senators vet Buttigieg to run Transportation Department 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 TrumpMore than two-thirds of Americans approve of Biden's coronavirus response: poll Sarah Huckabee Sanders to run for governor Mexico's president tests positive for COVID-19 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 SessionsHarris to resign from Senate seat on Monday Rosenstein: Zero tolerance immigration policy 'never should have been proposed or implemented' Sessions, top DOJ officials knew 'zero tolerance' would separate families, watchdog finds 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 FlakeArizona GOP censures top state Republicans McCain, Flake and Ducey Budowsky: Democracy won, Trump lost, President Biden inaugurated Biden's inauguration marked by conflict of hope and fear MORE (Ariz.) on Friday opened the door to trying to get legislation to protect special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerWhy a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel CNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump 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 HatchMellman: What happened after Ginsburg? Bottom line Bottom line 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 RossOn The Money: Retail sales drop in latest sign of weakening economy | Fast-food workers strike for minimum wage | US officials raise concerns over Mexico's handling of energy permits US officials raise concerns over Mexico's handling of energy permits Census Bureau racing to complete noncitizen data, watchdog says 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 KushnerJilani: China 'sending clear message' to Biden officials with sanctions that opposition could lead to 'future pay cut' Would Trump have gotten away with a self-pardon? History will never know Trump grants clemency to more than 100 people, including Bannon 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.