Sunday, November 29, 2020

Lame Duck Session: Can Washington get anything done during final days of the year?

Congress is set for a chaotic two-week sprint as lawmakers try to wrap up their work for the year.

Both chambers are returning Monday with just 10 working days before the House is set to leave town again, with no plans to return until early January.

Lawmakers have to tackle a lengthy to-do list while factoring in the looming wild card of President Trump, whose focus on score-settling on his way out of office has sparked speculation that he could emerge as a major roadblock on must-pass legislation like government funding before Dec. 12 to avoid a shutdown.

“I don’t think we’re going to get this done by the 11th of December. I’ve told everybody, ‘Look, I know that’s supposed to be the last day.’ I think we’re going to be here until the 20th of December or something,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.).

Here are five areas to watch amid the year-end fights.

Government funding 

Congress is facing a Dec. 11 deadline to fund the government and prevent a holiday shutdown, which would be the third of Trump’s presidency. 

Behind-the-scenes negotiations among congressional leadership and the Appropriations committees culminated over the Thanksgiving recess in a deal on spending levels for the 12 fiscal year 2021 appropriations bills. 

The deal allows committee staff and the White House to haggle and finalize each of the spending bills that would need to be included in a year-end omnibus. 

Shelby said shortly before the Thanksgiving break that he would sit down once Congress returned with House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.). Negotiators are looking at giving Trump $2 billion for his border wall, though he would have less than two months to use that funding.

Negotiators are looking at giving Trump $2 billion for his border wall, though he would have less than two months to use that funding.

One question hanging over the negotiations is whether Trump will agree to sign a full-year funding package for all 12 bills instead of a continuing resolution (CR), which would maintain funding at current levels until early next year. 

Shelby and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have said they believe the White House’s preference is to get an omnibus, even though the president has previously vowed he would not sign a mammoth spending bill again.

Shelby also floated that year-end negotiations could slip past Dec. 11, setting up a scenario where Congress would initially need to pass a days-long CR while they try to work out a larger deal.

“We’ve got time but we’ve got to move,” said Shelby.

Coronavirus relief 

Prospects for another coronavirus relief measure have been stalemated for months amid deep divisions on everything from the price tag to key components like unemployment insurance and help for state and local governments.

Both McConnell and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) say they want a deal this year on additional aid as COVID-19 cases climb across the country and states and cities are beginning to reinstate some restrictions in an effort to limit the spread of the virus.

McConnell, who is taking the lead on year-end negotiations, has said Senate Republicans want a “targeted” bill similar to the $500 billion GOP proposal blocked twice already by Democrats in the Senate.

That package, according to Republicans, would include another round of Paycheck Protection Program help for small businesses, more money for schools and coronavirus testing and McConnell’s demand for protections against coronavirus lawsuits.

But Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) are pointing to a sweeping $2.2 trillion House-passed coronavirus relief bill as the “starting point” for any negotiations. That bill includes more help for state and local governments and another round of stimulus checks — both of which were left out of the Senate GOP bill.

One potential wrinkle is if President-elect Joe Biden pushes congressional Democrats to accept a smaller deal now, an idea that is supported by some rank-and-file Democrats.

Biden and Democratic leaders have spoken post-election about the need for a coronavirus deal before the end of the year.

The New York Times reported that Biden wants a deal in the lame duck even if it is smaller than the topline figure backed by Pelosi and Schumer. However, Biden spokesman Andrew Bates said it was “incorrect” that the president-elect is pushing for them to pass a pared-down bill.

Biden has said he wants a deal this year, but hasn’t said what he believes should be the price tag.

Confederate-named bases 

Lawmakers need to resolve a fight over a plan to rename Confederate-named bases as part of a massive military policy bill.

Both the initial House and Senate versions of the annual National Defense Authorization Act included language that would force the Pentagon to rename relevant base and military installations. Under the House bill, the Pentagon would have one year to make those changes, while the Senate bill would allow three years.

The language for making changes of any kind prompted a veto threat from Trump, putting the fate of the must-pass bill in limbo.

Trump said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) has pledged that the legislative text on bases will be removed from the final version of the bill. The White House also floated that Trump could drop his veto threat if Congress agrees to repeal a legal shield for internet companies, a Democratic House aide confirmed, while characterizing the swap as “highly unlikely … [to] gain any traction.” 

Opponents are unlikely to get the base language removed, though there are signs of division among Democrats on strategy amid the risk of a veto. 

“What we are insisting — this is the irony — the House is insisting that the conference report accept the Senate language,” said Smith.

Arms sale

A bipartisan group of senators will force votes to try to block the Trump administration’s $23 billion arms package to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) during Congress’s final stretch of 2020.

Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J) and Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) have introduced four separate resolutions that would nullify the administration’s plan to sell the UAE F-35 fighter jets, armed drones, missiles and bombs.

The administration notified Congress earlier this month that it approved selling the UAE up to 50 F-35s worth $10.4 billion, up to 18 MQ-9B drones worth $2.97 billion and a package of air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions worth $10 billion.

That kicks off a 30-day period in which Congress can block the sales with resolutions such as the ones introduced earlier this month. The resolutions only need a simple majority to pass and McConnell, though he'll likely vote against it, can't prevent a vote.

Election fallout 

The fallout from the presidential election and limbo-status of the Senate majority battle are casting a long shadow over the year-end agenda. The two runoff elections in Georgia on Jan. 5 will decide which party controls the Senate for the next two years.

But before then, Arizona is set to certify Sen.-elect Mark Kelly’s (D) win as soon as Monday, which will allow him to be seated in the Senate as soon this week.

That would narrow the Senate GOP majority to 52-48, likely quashing any chance of Republicans confirming Judy Shelton, Trump’s controversial Federal Reserve nominee before the 117th Congress is sworn-in.

Republicans tried to confirm Shelton before the recess but fell short due to coronavirus-related absences and some GOP opposition. With three Senate Republicans opposed to Shelton — Susan Collins (Maine), Mitt Romney (Utah) and Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) — that leaves her short of the support needed to be confirmed once Kelly is seated.

Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, said the Arizona seat was a “complication” to the chances of confirming Shelton. 

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Beyond the direct implications to the Senate’s party breakdown, Democrats are also likely to try to clear the barn for the incoming Biden administration and increasingly turn their focus to next year’s agenda. Biden announced his first tranche of Cabinet picks, setting up battle lines that will deepen as he wades into departments and agencies that Republicans are critical of like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. 

Meanwhile, Trump’s posturing on the way out the door and how willing Republicans are to buck the president will likely color any legislative action over the next few weeks. Trump frustrated Republicans with recent decisions on Afghanistan troop levels and a post-election personnel shakeup with speculation swirling that Trump could ax officials like CIA Director Gina Haspel on his way out. 

Though McConnell hasn’t yet spoken to Biden, a growing number of senators have acknowledged the former vice president's White House victory and Trump has said he will leave the White House if the electoral college makes Biden’s win official.

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