Clock ticks down on GOP Congress

Lawmakers are facing an end-of-the-year traffic jam with legislation piling up and a tight schedule that leaves them little wiggle room.

Leadership is juggling a backlog of must-pass bills and nominations as well as eleventh-hour requests from rank-and-file members as legislators try to cram as much as possible into the final days of the work year. Republicans, in particular, are feeling pressure to make a last-ditch effort as they prepare to cede control of the House to Democrats in January. 

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But the schedule got further scrambled following former President George H.W. Bush’s death, with Washington expected to dedicate days to mourning the 41st president. House Republicans announced Monday they are canceling votes for the week, while the Senate is delaying the start of its work week.

Republican leadership unveiled a two-week continuing resolution to prevent a partial government shutdown by Friday night’s deadline for the seven appropriations bills they failed to pass by Sept. 30, the end of fiscal 2018.

That would push the border wall fight until Dec. 21 and, potentially, give lawmakers a few more days to squeeze in additional votes. Even with the funding battle put on the back-burner, leadership is facing a lengthy to-do list and multiple hard deadlines. 

Asked how Congress could get its end-of-the-year work done on time, Senate Majority Whip John CornynJohn CornynSkepticism grows over Friday deadline for coronavirus deal Republicans uncomfortably playing defense Negotiators hit gas on coronavirus talks as frustration mounts MORE (R-Texas) responded, “It’s amazing. When we have a deadline, we get things done. When we don’t, we don’t seem to get things done.”

This week is effectively a wash on getting legislation to President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden says his faith is 'bedrock foundation of my life' after Trump claim Coronavirus talks on life support as parties dig in, pass blame Ohio governor tests negative in second coronavirus test MORE’s desk beyond the stopgap funding bill. The measure, unveiled Monday, also extends the National Flood Insurance Program until Dec. 21, setting up another deadline on Congress’s limited schedule. 

Congressional Republicans were hoping to load up the lame-duck session with long-stalled conservative priorities, arguing December marks their best chance until at least 2021 to cram through legislation.

House Republicans, for example, were hoping to pass an end-of-Congress tax bill that would have made corrections to last year’s tax package, but it didn’t come up for a vote last week and now appears to be stuck in limbo.

Time is quickly running out if the party wants to score one last legacy item and Senate Republican leadership, so far, is showing little inclination to stretch much further than the bare minimum of what can be passed: a government funding bill, a farm bill and a last package of Trump nominees. 

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Republicans have placed a premium on being able to confirm Trump’s picks, particularly to the influential circuit courts. The delay sparked by the Bush ceremonies also pushes back three nominations the Senate was expected to vote on this week. The chamber is expected to start work on the nominations early Wednesday afternoon. If they stick with working through all three, that could easily eat up the truncated work week. 

Senate GOP leaders are still trying to defuse a fight over Saudi Arabia after they took a small, but significant, step in advancing a resolution that would end U.S. support for the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen. The chamber had been expected to take its next vote on the resolution this week, but senators now believe that could be delayed until next week. 

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerTennessee primary battle turns nasty for Republicans Cheney clashes with Trump Sessions-Tuberville Senate runoff heats up in Alabama MORE (R-Tenn.), who is retiring at the end of this Congress, said he expects a vote to occur on Monday but floated that it would be “great” if the administration could act before then. CIA Director Gina Haspel will brief members of the Foreign Relations, Armed Services and Appropriations committees on Tuesday.

“It gives us a little time to think it through and to make sure we end up with a good policy,” Corker said of the delay. “I’ve had several meetings today internally, and we’ve met with leadership, too, just to share with them what they’re thinking.” 

Lawmakers are still trying to reach a deal that would rein in the chamber’s debate. Without an agreement, senators predict a dramatic vote-a-rama where any member could force a vote on any proposal and eat up precious, limited floor time. 

Congress is grinding to pass a massive must-pass farm bill after negotiators struck a bipartisan deal “in principle” late last week. The House had been eyeing a vote on the legislation, which is not expected to include their new work requirements for food stamp recipients. It’s not clear when the House will schedule a vote on the farm measure.

Republicans are still weighing a White House-backed criminal justice reform bill. Supporters argue that if the agreement doesn’t pass this year, House Democrats could try to reopen negotiations next year, making it harder to pass the Senate. 

Cornyn noted that lawmakers could try to “shoehorn” in the legislation, and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyMcConnell goes hands-off on coronavirus relief bill GOP chairmen hit back at accusation they are spreading disinformation with Biden probe On The Money: Unemployment debate sparks GOP divisions | Pandemic reveals flaws of unemployment insurance programs | Survey finds nearly one-third of rehired workers laid off again MORE (R-Iowa) said Monday that he and Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinOn The Money: Pessimism grows as coronavirus talks go down to the wire | Jobs report poised to light fire under COVID-19 talks | Tax preparers warn unemployment recipients could owe IRS Pessimism grows as coronavirus talks go down to the wire Senate Democrats demand answers on migrant child trafficking during pandemic MORE (D-Ill.) have made changes to the bill to try to win over skeptical Republicans. 

“There have been some suggested changes at this point, but they’re relatively minor. But they’re enough to get more people on board,” Grassley said. 

But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellCoronavirus talks on life support as parties dig in, pass blame Jobs report poised to light fire under COVID-19 talks Overnight Health Care: Ohio governor tests positive for COVID-19 ahead of Trump's visit | US shows signs of coronavirus peak, but difficult days lie ahead | Trump: COVID-19 vaccine may be ready 'right around' Election Day MORE (R-Ky.) has yet to commit to giving the agreement a vote. While Trump endorsed the measure last month, his attention has publicly strayed to special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerCNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout MORE’s probe and the fight over the border wall. 

McConnell has said he wants to pass a deal on reforming how Congress handles sexual harassment allegations by the end of the year. If lawmakers can get a deal, it could ride on the final spending bill. But the House and Senate, which passed their own bills, remain divided on key sticking points, including whether lawmakers will be held personally liable for both harassment and discrimination. 

And throwing a last-minute curveball to Congress, Trump inked a new trade agreement with Mexico and Canada and warned over the weekend that he would withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), in a pressure tactic to get Congress to approve the new so-called NAFTA 2.0 deal. 

But the agreement is all but guaranteed to get kicked to next year as it faces strong pushback from Democrats, as well as some Republicans who are already publicly demanding changes. 

Sen. John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoLatest Trump proposal on endangered species could limit future habitat, critics say Republicans dismiss Trump proposal to delay election Barrasso nuclear bill latest GOP effort to boost uranium mining MORE (R-Wyo.) said Trump shouldn’t withdraw from NAFTA until it’s clear that the new agreement has the votes to pass Congress. 

“I think we need to see if we get it passed first,” Barrasso, a member of GOP leadership, told NBC’s “Meet the Press.”  “And I don’t see how many Democrat votes come on board for this. I support what the president has been doing.”