Congress barrels toward end-of-year pileup

Congress is facing a legislative pileup as it barrels toward the end of the year with a lengthy to-do list. 

The House and Senate return Monday and are scheduled to be in session for roughly two weeks before the end of 2021, setting up a legislative squeeze that is threatening to drive lawmaking deeper into the holiday season.  

Democrats, facing increasingly sharp headwinds as they move toward the 2022 midterms, want to deliver big wins by the end of President Biden’s first year. But they have to juggle their party’s political ambitions with must-pass bills that threaten to eat up shrinking floor time.  

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) warned of a grueling end-of-year schedule in a letter to Senate Democrats on Sunday, noting it will “likely take some long nights and weekends.”

“I ask that you please keep your schedule flexible for the remainder of the calendar year,” he said.

Here’s what is on Congress’s end-of-year to-do list.

Social spending bill 

Democrats’ timeline for trying to get their sweeping social and climate spending bill to Biden’s desk has slipped repeatedly closer to the end of the year, a time when lawmakers already face multiple deadlines.  

House Democrats had hoped to pass the bill before the Veterans Day recess. Instead, helped by 13 Republicans, they passed the Senate’s bipartisan infrastructure bill and punted the social spending bill to try to assuage moderates who want to see a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) analysis of the bill. 

As part of that agreement, five moderate House Democrats put out a joint statement vowing to support the Build Back Better legislation “in its current form other than technical changes” as soon as they receive CBO “fiscal information” that lines up with a framework deal “but in no event later than the week of November 15.”  

The CBO has released analysis for pieces of the bill but hasn’t yet given a timeline for when it thinks an undertaking of the full bill will be ready. But key House Democrats are warning that a full score from the CBO was never part of the agreement. 

“To clarify for everyone: the agreement we made w/our colleagues was NOT for CBO score. It was for some additional financial information from CBO. Agreement also says that in no event would the vote take place later than the week of Nov. 15. We trust our colleagues’ commitments,” Congressional Progressive Caucus Chairwoman Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) tweeted.  

The House has the bill on its schedule for this week, but the Senate’s consideration of the bill is likely to slip until after Thanksgiving. Schumer, in a letter to the Democratic caucus, said that he was already having talks with the parliamentarian about whether the bill complied with reconciliation rules and a budget resolution approved earlier this year. Senate Democrats will also start having talks with the House this week about whether it meets the Byrd rule.

Government funding

Lawmakers have a matter of days to come up with an agreement to fund the government and avoid an early-December shutdown.  

Congress previously passed a short-term bill to keep the government open through Dec. 3 and is expected to need to use another continuing resolution (CR), which funds the government at current levels, to keep the lights on.  

Senate Republicans are pitching a yearlong CR, which would fund the government through Sept. 30. But Democrats are pushing back on that, with Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) warning that the “impacts of a full-year CR are too onerous for the country to bear.”  

The White House is trying to build pressure on lawmakers to reach a deal on fiscal 2022 funding, which would include new funding levels and priorities, and avoid a funding patch, a tall lift given the current state of talks. 

Democrats haven’t yet put forward a CR proposal of their own, but lawmakers in the past have used short-term funding bills through late February or early March as a way to buy themselves more time. 

“We could have a short-term deal and see if we could do something before Christmas or a little longer, maybe to February or March. We don’t know yet,” said Sen. Richard Shelby (Ala.), the top Republican on the Appropriations Committee.  

Defense bill  

The Senate is “likely” to bring a massive defense policy bill, known as the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to the floor this week, according to Schumer, amid delays on the reconciliation bill.

The bill, which lays out spending levels and policy for the Pentagon, typically passes each year with a wide bipartisan margin. But because the bill has must-pass status, it’s a magnet for hundreds of potential amendments.

The House passed its version of the defense bill in September. But the upper chamber’s legislation has been in limbo after getting approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee in July.  

The delay has sparked frustration from Republicans and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.), who told reporters that he thought not bringing it up was an “unforced error” on Schumer’s part. 

Once the Senate passes its bill, it still needs to formally negotiate a final compromise with the House. 

Schumer said senators are considering adding a competitiveness bill that passed the Senate earlier this year but stalled in the House to the bill. They are also expected to use the NDAA as a vehicle for approving a repeal of the 2002 Iraq War authorization. 

Debt ceiling

Congress passed a short-term debt hike earlier this year that congressional aides, citing Treasury estimates, predicted would keep the government solvent through roughly Dec. 3.  

But senators in both parties believe they have more time to pass another increase in the debt ceiling, with Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) describing it as a “December problem.” 

The Bipartisan Policy Center has estimated that Congress will need to act as soon as mid-December or as late as February.

Democrats haven’t yet said how they will raise the debt ceiling. Republicans faced fierce backlash from their own caucus after they helped break a filibuster on the short-term debt extension after months of vowing that they would make Democrats go it alone. 

Another down-to-the-wire standoff will likely up pressure to exempt the debt ceiling from the legislative filibuster, but some Democrats, including Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.), are pushing to raise the debt ceiling on their own through reconciliation if they can’t get a deal with Republicans. 

Democratic leadership has been loath to put that option. But Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Schumer didn’t close the door completely in recent interviews, with Pelosi telling CNN that it was “one path.” 

Voting rights

Senate Democrats are ramping up their efforts to figure out a way to find a path forward on voting rights legislation, including discussing potential changes to the Senate rules.  

A group of senators, including Senate Rules Committee Chairman Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), have been tapped to come up with ideas and lead the discussions within the caucus. 

Voting rights are viewed as a top priority for Biden and progressive activists as GOP-controlled legislatures across the country debate, and in some cases pass, new voting laws following the 2020 election. 

While Manchin and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) view a bill named after the late Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) that would expand the 1965 Voting Rights Act as a springboard for negotiations, Democrats are skeptical they’ll be able to come up with a deal that could get at least 10 Republicans. 

Instead, Schumer has vowed that Democrats will study “alternative paths” to go it alone. Democrats and outside groups are floating a range of potential options, including creating a carveout for voting rights, changing the number of votes needed to break a filibuster or even unrelated, smaller rules changes such as streamlining amendments and nominations. 

Any change would need to garner support from Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), who are opposed to nixing the filibuster. Manchin has rejected the idea of a carve out.  

“A number of our colleagues – with my full support – have been discussing ideas for how to restore the Senate to protect our democracy. Those conversations will continue in earnest this coming week,” Schumer wrote in his letter to Senate Democrats.

Tags Adam Smith Amy Klobuchar Charles Schumer Dick Durbin Joe Biden Joe Manchin John Lewis Kyrsten Sinema Lisa Murkowski Nancy Pelosi Patrick Leahy Pramila Jayapal Raphael Warnock Richard Shelby Tim Kaine

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