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This week: Congress returns for loaded lame-duck session

The Hill logo The Hill 11/14/2022 Mychael Schnell
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Congress is back.

The House and Senate are set to reconvene on Monday with jam-packed to-do lists for the lame-duck session, including must-pass pieces of legislation and other items on Democratic wish lists.

Members are also returning to Washington with the balance of power in the House up for grabs, and as the final breakdown in the Senate remains unknown — leaving lawmakers in limbo as they begin prepping plans for the next Congress.

Despite the uncertainty, Congress must begin working toward passing a budget and authorizing the annual defense policy bill — two tasks that have to be completed before lawmakers adjourn for the holiday break next month. Just 17 legislative days remain.

Lawmakers are also hoping to push through other bills, including one to protect same-sex marriage on the federal level and another to protect elections. They could also move to raise the debt limit.

But this week, the focus will largely be on leadership races for the next Congress.

Leadership races

Leadership races for the 118th Congress will be a prime focus this week, as lawmakers in both parties and chambers look ahead to next year with Election Day in the rearview mirror.

The House Republican conference is scheduled to hold its leadership elections on Tuesday behind closed doors, even as the balance of power in the lower chamber remains unknown.

Republicans are favored to win a narrow majority, though Democrats still have an improbable path to victory with 19 races still undecided.

But House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is nonetheless plowing ahead with his bid for Speaker. Republicans are favored to win the House by a far smaller margin than initially anticipated.

The California Republican’s path to securing the Speaker’s gavel, however, is becoming increasingly muddy, with the conservative House Freedom Caucus withholding its support and demanding a number of rule change requests to empower its members.

McCarthy is the only lawmaker currently running for Speaker, and only needs to secure support from a majority of the conference to become the GOP nominee. Matters may get messy, however, in January, when his bid faces the entire chamber for a public vote.

McCarthy has to receive at least 218 votes to secure the gavel — a feat that could be difficult depending on how slim the GOP’s majority is.

Members of the Freedom Caucus are currently pushing for the leadership elections to be pushed back, citing the unknown majority in the chamber.

Leadership races for Senate Republicans are also in flux. Initially scheduled for Wednesday, a number of GOP senators are now calling for the elections to be punted to a later date — potentially after the Georgia runoff, which is slated for Dec. 6.

House Democrats are currently scheduled to hold their leadership elections on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1. The question looming before that secret ballot is whether or not Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) will make another bid for Democratic leader, departing from her promise in 2018 that this year would be her last atop the caucus.

On Sunday, Pelosi told CNN she will “of course” make a decision on her future before Nov. 30, and said some Democrats are asking her to remain leader.

And for Senate Democrats, the caucus is slated to hold its leadership elections the week of Dec. 5. Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is expected to easily win re-election to the caucus’ top spot.

New-member orientation

In the background of the leadership jockeying this week, incoming House lawmakers will be in Washington for orientation before they are sworn in early next year.

On Monday, members-elect are scheduled to attend a training session with the Committee on House Administration, and on Tuesday they are slated to take a class photo on the steps of the Capitol.

Also on Monday, Pelosi is holding a swearing-in ceremony for Congressman-elect Rudy Yakym (R-Ind.), who is filling the seat formerly held by the late Rep. Jackie Walorski (R), who died in a car accident in August.

Yakym, who was formerly the finance director of Walorski’s House campaign, secured victories in two elections — one to finish the late congresswoman’s term, and another to serve his own full term in Congress representing Indiana’s 2nd congressional district.

Must-pass items: budget, defense bill

On the legislative front, lawmakers have two must-pass items on their agenda: funding the government and the annual defense policy bill.

Congress passed and President Biden signed a stopgap funding bill in late September, averting a government shutdown and punting the new deadline to Dec. 16, which lawmakers are now staring down.

During an appearance on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday, Anita Dunn, senior adviser to the president, said keeping the government open and funded was “priority number one” for the lame-duck session.

She also said the White House is also hoping that Congress passes more funding for Ukraine and emergency funding to help Florida and Puerto Rico recover from hurricanes earlier this year. The stopgap bill passed in September included financial assistance for Ukraine and disaster relief.

In October, Pelosi vowed to send more aid to Ukraine “when we pass our omnibus funding bill this fall.”

In addition to a funding bill, Congress must also pass the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which establishes the Pentagon’s budget and policy for next year.

The NDAA may have another legislative item attached to it — a permitting reform measure championed by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) that sought to quicken the timeline for environmental reviews, among other provisions.

The permitting reform item was initially in the stopgap bill Congress considered in September, but Manchin asked Schumer to remove the language because of widespread opposition.

Manchin last week said he is “working now on getting [permitting reform] in the National Defense Authorization,” according to E&E News. Also last week, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the defense bill “should include Senator Manchin’s permitting bill.”

Democratic leaders promised Manchin that the measure would come up for a vote in exchange for his support of the Inflation Reduction Act, which Congress passed and Biden signed into law over the summer.

Wish list items: Same-sex marriage, electoral reform, debt ceiling

Aside from the must-pass items Congress has to consider this lame-duck session, there is a handful of legislation that some lawmakers are hoping to push through in the final month-and-a-half sprint.

One measure is a bill to protect same-sex marriage on the federal level. The House passed the Respect for Marriage Act in a narrow vote in July, sending it to the Senate.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin (Wis.), the lead Democratic negotiator working on the bill, announced in September that the upper chamber was punting a vote on the measure until after the midterm elections.

A number of lawmakers are also pulling for movement on legislation to reform the Electoral Count Act.

The House passed a measure in September to protect elections from influence by lawmakers, sending it to the Senate for consideration. The upper chamber, however, has its own version of the legislation with some slight differences.

While the House bill passed with narrow bipartisan support, the Senate version — which has not yet come up for a vote — has more than 10 Republican cosponsors, making it ripe to overcome a legislative filibuster.

In October, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), a member of the Jan. 6 panel, told reporters in the Capitol “I hope that we can negotiate to include the best elements of both proposals and that neither the House nor Senate will take any position that will threaten the ultimate success of the legislation.”

And finally, lawmakers could take action on raising the debt ceiling, after some Republicans have floated the possibility of using the borrowing cap to force concessions next year on entitlement spending from Democrats.

Congressional lawmakers raised the debt ceiling by $2.5 trillion in December 2021, allowing the U.S. to avoid default until at least 2023. That said, next year Congress will have to either increase or suspend the ceiling to prevent economic turmoil.

Asked on Sunday if she thinks she can secure a permanent or large extension of the debt ceiling during the lame-duck session, Pelosi told ABC’s “This Week” in an interview “I think it would be very important for us to do so.”

“Our best shot I think is…to do it now,” she said.

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