What to watch: Five fights awaiting Trump, Congress

Congress is returning to Washington with several divisive fights looming over the 2019 agenda.

The first year of divided government under the Trump administration will set up a clash between Senate Republicans, who expanded their majority, and House Democrats ready to challenge the administration.

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The 2020 election will also cast an increasingly long shadow as President TrumpDonald John TrumpPence: It's not a "foregone conclusion" that lawmakers impeach Trump FBI identifies Pensacola shooter as Saudi Royal Saudi Air Force second lieutenant Trump calls Warren 'Pocahontas,' knocks wealth tax MORE gears up to run for reelection and a boatload of Democrats ready presidential campaigns.

Ending a partial government shutdown will be the first piece of business. Here’s what to watch for.

Government funding

Roughly 25 percent of the federal government has been closed since Dec. 22 amid a protracted fight over Trump’s demands for $5 billion in funding for a wall on the Mexican border.

The shutdown came after Trump, under fire from conservatives, refused to support a Senate-passed seven-week bill that provided no extra money for the border. House Republicans, instead, passed a seven-week stopgap bill that included $5.7 billion for the wall and border security.

House Democrats plan to pass a bill to fully reopen the government when they take power on Thursday. Their plan is to approve a spending bill for the Department of Homeland Security that would continue existing funding through Feb. 8. They would also pass a package of six other bills funding the remaining closed parts of the government through the end of the fiscal year.

The move would kick the fight back to the Senate and force Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBiden: 'No party should have too much power' Overnight Energy: Pelosi vows bold action to counter 'existential' climate threat | Trump jokes new light bulbs don't make him look as good | 'Forever chemicals' measure pulled from defense bill Overnight Health Care — Presented by Johnson & Johnson – House progressives may try to block vote on Pelosi drug bill | McConnell, Grassley at odds over Trump-backed drug pricing bill | Lawmakers close to deal on surprise medical bills MORE (R-Ky.) to decide whether to move a bill without Trump’s support. Another question? Whether Trump would sign such a deal.

Behind the scenes, there has been talk about a deal in which Trump would lower his demands to roughly $2.5 billion. That would be in exchange for Democrats, who previously rejected a two-year deal that would have given Trump $2.5 billion in 2019, backing down from their hardline of $1.3 billion for fencing.

Such a deal would hinge on wording that would allow both sides to save face, meaning funding would need to go to fencing or other security measures falling short of a wall. They would also need to iron out an agreement on what restrictions to include on the funding, with the White House pushing for wide leeway on how they can use it.

Nominations

Trump’s Cabinet reshuffling will set up several fights in the Senate as lawmakers work to confirm his picks.

Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisThreatening foreign states with sanctions can backfire Overnight Defense: Erdoğan gets earful from GOP senators | Amazon to challenge Pentagon cloud contract decision in court | Lawmakers under pressure to pass benefits fix for military families Amazon to challenge Pentagon's 'war cloud' decision in federal court MORE’s resignation, and Trump’s decision to force him out early, rankled Senate Republicans and set a high bar for his successor. Lawmakers viewed the retired general as a stabilizing influence who aligned more closely with their foreign policy views than the president.

Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonHere are the Senate Republicans who could vote to convict Trump GOP senators request interview with former DNC contractor to probe possible Ukraine ties Both sides have reason to want speedy Trump impeachment trial MORE (R-Wis.), who says he wants a “Mattis clone,” predicted the confirmation battle for Mattis’s successor “ought to be pretty interesting” and that “hard questions” will be asked by both Democrats and Republicans.

Sen. Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyNSA improperly collected US phone records in October, new documents show Overnight Defense: Pick for South Korean envoy splits with Trump on nuclear threat | McCain blasts move to suspend Korean military exercises | White House defends Trump salute of North Korean general WH backpedals on Trump's 'due process' remark on guns MORE (R-Pa.) told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that some of Trump’s views are “very, very distinct” from most Republicans and that he wanted the next Defense secretary to share “a more traditional view about America’s role in the world.”

Mattis’s resignation came as Trump is already facing several nomination fights.

William Barr, the president’s nominee to be the next attorney general, is under fire for his criticism of special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerTrump says he'll release financial records before election, knocks Dems' efforts House impeachment hearings: The witch hunt continues Speier says impeachment inquiry shows 'very strong case of bribery' by Trump MORE’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election. The Wall Street Journal reported that Barr, a former attorney general during the George H.W. Bush administration, wrote in an unsolicited memo that the probe is based on a “fatally misconceived” theory and would do “lasting damage” to the presidency.

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Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerOvernight Health Care — Presented by Johnson & Johnson — Democrats call on Supreme Court to block Louisiana abortion law | Michigan governor seeks to pause Medicaid work requirements | New front in fight over Medicaid block grants House, Senate Democrats call on Supreme Court to block Louisiana abortion law Why a second Trump term and a Democratic Congress could be a nightmare scenario for the GOP MORE (D-N.Y.) has called on Trump to drop Barr. Several Republicans, including Sens. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsHere are the Senate Republicans who could vote to convict Trump Giffords, Demand Justice to pressure GOP senators to reject Trump judicial pick Senate confirms eight Trump court picks in three days MORE (R-Maine) and Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulTrump's legal team huddles with Senate Republicans Democratic congressman calls for study of effects of sex-trafficking law McConnell says he's 'honored' to be WholeFoods Magazine's 2019 'Person of the Year' MORE (R-Ky.), have also signaled they want assurances on Mueller or expressed unrelated reservations about Barr.

Senators will also need to tackle Heather Nauert’s nomination to be ambassador to the United Nations, handle a replacement for Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeOvernight Energy: House Science Committee hits EPA with subpoenas | California sues EPA over Trump revoking emissions waiver | Interior disbands board that floated privatization at national parks Interior disbands advisory board that floated privatization at national parks Overnight Energy: Senate eyes nixing 'forever chemicals' fix from defense bill | Former Obama EPA chief named CEO of green group | Senate reviews Interior, FERC nominees criticized on ethics MORE and confirm Andrew Wheeler as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Debt ceiling

Congress will face another perennial fiscal headache later this year: raising the debt ceiling.

The debt ceiling was suspended until March, and the Treasury Department’s use of “extraordinary measures” means the real deadline for action is probably mid-summer, say budget experts.

Raising the debt ceiling was a point of contention between GOP leadership and conservatives, with rank-and-file members wanting to use the vote to force through spending and entitlement cuts or changes to the congressional budget process.

Trump threw Republicans for a loop when he opened the door to nixing the debt ceiling in a meeting last year, arguing “there are a lot of good reasons” to get rid of it.

Democrats coming into power could further shift the dynamics. The House Freedom Caucus, which tried to weaponize the issue, will be in the minority. House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiPence: It's not a "foregone conclusion" that lawmakers impeach Trump Democrats open door to repealing ObamaCare tax in spending talks Sunday talk shows: Lawmakers gear up ahead of Monday's House Judiciary hearing MORE (D-Calif.), likely the next Speaker, previously said House Democrats would back a “clean” hike.

Rep. John YarmuthJohn Allen YarmuthOvernight Defense: Erdoğan gets earful from GOP senators | Amazon to challenge Pentagon cloud contract decision in court | Lawmakers under pressure to pass benefits fix for military families Lawmakers under pressure to pass benefits fix for military families Kentucky Democrat: McConnell's agenda driven by 'power without a purpose' MORE (D-Ky.), the incoming Budget Committee chairman, also has a proposal to de-escalate the fight by reinstating the “Gephardt rule,” which deemed the debt ceiling raised when Congress passed a budget.

NAFTA

Trump needs Congress to pass implementing legislation for his new trade deal with Mexico and Canada, which is meant to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

But the trade agreement is already sparking fierce debate, and alarm bells, among members raising questions about if it could get through Congress in its current form.

Though Congress previously agreed to fast-track any trade deals, House Democrats could easily nix the abbreviated floor process. In 2008, Democrats, led by Pelosi, voted to change the timeline required for Congress to take up trade agreements, effectively killing a Bush administration deal with Colombia.  

Pelosi has repeatedly indicated that she views Trump’s trade agreement with Mexico and Canada as a “work in progress” and wants changes to bolster labor and environmental protections.

“While there are positive things in this proposed trade agreement, it is just a list without real enforcement of the labor and environmental protections. We are also still waiting for Mexico to pass its promised law on the wages and working conditions of Mexican workers competing with American workers,” Pelosi said after a meeting with U.S. Trade Representative Robert LighthizerRobert (Bob) Emmet LighthizerPelosi casts doubt on USMCA deal in 2019 Pelosi sounds hopeful on new NAFTA deal despite tensions with White House On The Money: Economy adds 164K jobs in July | Trump signs two-year budget deal, but border showdown looms | US, EU strike deal on beef exports MORE in December.

Even in the Senate, Republicans are warning about the potential consequences of the deal and publicly saying Trump cannot pull out of NAFTA without their approval. Trump has threatened to do so in an effort to pressure Congress to approve his new agreement.

Foreign policy

Congress and Trump are expected to battle on multiple foreign policy fronts in 2019 as Republicans appear increasingly unnerved by the administration’s foreign policy decisions.

A battle over the U.S.-Saudi relationship is spilling over into the new year.

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) will reintroduce his resolution that directs Trump to remove any troops in or “affecting” Yemen within 30 days unless they are fighting al Qaeda. Senators are also expected to reintroduce legislation to require sanctions on anyone involved in Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi’s death.

Trump is also facing fights over his plans to remove troops from Syria and draw down the U.S. military in Afghanistan. The Syria decision, in particular, has rattled lawmakers, who worry it will empower Russia, the Assad government and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioHere are the Senate Republicans who could vote to convict Trump TikTok's leader to meet with lawmakers next week GOP senators unveil bill to expand 'opportunity zone' reporting requirements MORE (R-Fla.) predicted there would be oversight hearings about the administration’s strategy. Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGOP senators request interview with former DNC contractor to probe possible Ukraine ties GOP senator blocks Armenian genocide resolution Hannity slams Stern for Clinton interview: 'Not the guy I grew up listening to' MORE (R-S.C.), who has publicly and privately urged Trump to reverse course, said after a White House meeting on Sunday that he felt reassured and that he believed the administration was “slowing things down” to evaluate the situation.

Graham told CNN that Trump hadn’t changed his mind about withdrawing troops but that there is a “pause” to “assess the effects of the conditions on the ground."