A packed legislative to-do list awaits Congress when it returns to session after the midterms – and Democrats, who currently control both chambers, will face a ticking clock to enact key priorities if Republicans win back the House or manage to flip the Senate in the upcoming elections.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has predicted an “extremely busy” lame duck session – the period of time after the midterms and before a new Congress begins in January.
“We still have much to do and many important bills to consider,” Schumer said in remarks on the Senate floor at the end of September. “Members should be prepared for an extremely, underline extremely, busy agenda in the last two months of this Congress.”
The jam-packed agenda for the lame-duck session includes: Funding the government to avert a shutdown before the end of the calendar year, passage of the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, the annual must-pass legislation that sets the policy agenda and authorizes funding for the Department of Defense, as well as a vote in the Senate to protect same-sex marriage and the potential consideration of other key pieces of legislation.
Democrats are still limited in what they can achieve, however, given their narrow majorities in both chambers. With a 50-50 partisan split in the Senate, Democrats lack the votes to overcome the filibuster’s 60-vote threshold – and do not have the votes to abolish the filibuster. As a result, major priorities for liberal voters – like the passage of legislation protecting access to abortion after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade – will still remain out of reach for the party for the foreseeable future.
Government funding is the most pressing priority that lawmakers will confront during the lame duck. The current deadline for the expiration of funding is December 16 after the House and Senate passed an extension to avert a shutdown at the end of September.
Since the funding bill is viewed as must-pass legislation it will likely become a magnet for other priorities that lawmakers may try to tack on to ride along with it. It’s possible that further aid for Ukraine could come up as Ukraine continues to counter Russia’s invasion of the country. While that funding has bipartisan support, some conservatives are balking at the pricey contributions to Ukraine and may scrutinize more closely additional requests from the administration, a dynamic that is dividing Republicans on this key issue.
Democrats also want more funding for pandemic response, but Republicans have pushed back on that request.
One issue that may come up during the government funding effort is money for the Department of Justice investigation into the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.
A House Democratic aide told CNN that final fiscal year 2023 funding levels have yet to be determined. Justice Department needs and resources are part of this ongoing conversation, but under the leadership of Rep. Matt Cartwright, chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on commerce, justice, science, and related agencies, the House bill included $34 million that would allow DOJ to fund these prosecutions without reducing their efforts in other areas.
House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro told CNN in a statement, “I look forward to working with my colleagues on the House and Senate appropriations committees and passing a final 2023 spending package by the December 16th deadline.”
Meanwhile, the Senate has begun work on the NDAA, and is expected to pass the massive piece of legislation during the lame duck. Consideration of the wide-ranging bill could spark debate and a push for amendments over a variety of topics.
Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa has called for punishing OPEC for its production cut by passing legislation that would hold foreign oil producers accountable for colluding to fix prices – and the senator has said he believes the measure can pass as an amendment to the NDAA. The legislation would clear the way for the Justice Department to sue Saudi Arabia and other OPEC nations for antitrust violations.
Senate Democrats will also continue confirming judges to the federal bench nominated by President Joe Biden, a key priority for the party.
A Senate vote to protect same-sex marriage is also on tap for the lame-duck session. In mid-September, the chamber punted on a vote until after the November midterm elections as negotiators asked for more time to lock down support – a move that could make it more likely the bill will ultimately pass the chamber.
The bipartisan group of senators working on the bill said in a statement at the time, “We’ve asked Leader Schumer for additional time and we appreciate he has agreed. We are confident that when our legislation comes to the Senate floor for a vote, we will have the bipartisan support to pass the bill.” The bill would need at least 10 Republican votes to overcome a filibuster.
Schumer has vowed to hold a vote on the bill, but the exact timing has not yet been locked in. Democrats have pushed for the vote after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, sparking fears that the court could take aim at same-sex marriage in the future.
The Senate could take up legislation during the lame duck in response to the January 6, 2021, attack by a mob of pro-Trump supporters attempting to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.
Over the summer, a bipartisan group of senators reached a deal to make it harder to overturn a certified presidential election. The proposal would still need, however, to be approved by both chambers. Notably, the Senate proposal has the backing of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican.
“I strongly support the modest changes that our colleagues in the working group have fleshed out after literally months of detailed discussions,” McConnell said at the end of September. “I’ll proudly support the legislation, provided that nothing more than technical changes are made to its current form.”
If the bill passes the Senate, it would also need to clear the House, which in September, passed its own version of legislation to make it harder to overturn a certified presidential election in the future by proposing changes to the Electoral Count Act.
Passing a bill to to restrict lawmakers from trading stocks is a priority for a number of moderate House Democrats – who may continue to push for the issue to be taken up during the lame duck, though whether there will be a vote is still to be determined and other pressing must-pass items like government funding could crowd out the issue. The House did not vote on a proposal prior to the midterm elections.
“It’s a complicated issue, as you can imagine, as a new rule for members they have to follow, and their families as I understand, so I think it deserves careful study to make sure if we do something, we do it right,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told CNN last month.
Meanwhile, it’s not yet clear when exactly the nation will run up against the debt limit and it appears unlikely for now that Congress will act to resolve the issue during the lame-duck session, especially as other must-pass bills compete for floor time. But political battle lines are already being drawn and maneuvering is underway in Washington over the contentious and high-stakes issue.
A group of House Democrats recently sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Schumer calling for legislation to “permanently undo the threat posed by the debt limit” during the post-election lame-duck session. The letter, led by Pennsylvania Rep. Brendan Boyle, was signed by several prominent House Democrats, including Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries of New York.
Biden on Friday gave a window into how he’s preparing for a looming political showdown over the debt ceiling, stating unequivocally that he will not relent to Republican lawmakers threatening to send the nation into default if he doesn’t meet their demands, but adding that he doesn’t support efforts from within his own party to abolish the debt limit entirely.