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Three big issues on Capitol Hill

What to watch in Congress as the year comes to a close

The U.S. Capitol dome on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Associated Press/Photo by Patrick Semansky

Three big issues on Capitol Hill
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The Christmas season is upon us and with it one of Washington, D.C.’s oldest holiday traditions. Congress is frantically trying to wrap up all the important work it has put off until the end of the year. As we all look forward to setting those out-of-office messages and “touching base after the holidays” vows, we shouldn’t let the busyness of the season cause us to miss what our elected officials are up to.

Things do look a bit different this year after the recent passage of a short-term continuing resolution that punts the major fights over appropriations until after New Year’s. This was a big win for the new speaker of the House, Mike Johnson, who avoided the trap of a big, expensive spending bill forced through on the grounds of avoiding a government shutdown over Christmas. Instead, the House and Senate will battle over government funding in January.

With annual appropriations off the table, Congress will focus on three major outstanding issues before recessing for the holidays: a major supplemental spending bill for Ukraine, passing the National Defense Authorization Act, and reauthorizing a major tool of the intelligence community.

$100 Billion Supplemental Spending Bill

In October, the Biden administration requested more than $100 billion in emergency spending, most of which is for the war in Ukraine. But it also includes military aid to Israel in response to the Oct. 7 terrorist attack by Hamas, funding for operations at the U.S. border, international aid, and more. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell are unified in their desire to pass the “emergency supplemental” spending bill (government spending outside of and above the levels of the standard annual appropriations process), though McConnell has insisted on including border security policy reforms and deputized members of his conference to negotiate the terms with Senate Democrats.

The fate of the supplemental bill rests on whether Senate Democrats and Republicans can agree on those reforms, and whether they can satisfy the Republican-controlled House of Representatives which passed a strong border security bill early this year. However, there are several other key issues yet to be resolved, including whether the administration will provide Congress with a strategy and timeline for resolving the war in Ukraine, whether the international aid money will be prevented from being funneled to Hamas, and whether the $100 billion will be offset with spending cuts elsewhere (which the House insisted on when it passed $12 billion in Israel assistance).

We know one of the major issues being debated is abortion.

National Defense Authorization Act

The final version of the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is currently being negotiated by conferees representing the House and Senate-passed versions of the bill. Those meetings occur in secret, so the exact nature of the negotiation will not be known until the release of the conference report. That said, we know one of the major issues being debated is abortion.

The House bill includes a provision that revokes the Biden administration’s illegal abortion tourism policy implemented earlier this year (the same policy that led Sen. Tommy Tuberville to place holds on senior-level military promotions). House Republicans, led by Rep. Ronny Jackson and Rep. Chip Roy and more than 70 others, included the repeal in their version of the NDAA, while the Senate did not. The conventional wisdom is Republicans will cave and allow the provision to be removed from the conference bill in a gift to the Biden administration and Democrats. Of all the debates over abortion in America, taxpayer funding of the practice through the Department of Defense is not one they prefer.

Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Section 702 Reauthorization

In 2008, Congress added Section 702 to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), authorizing intelligence agencies to spy on the communications of non-U.S. persons located outside of the United States without first obtaining a warrant. Congress is now considering whether to reauthorize the statute and what reforms are necessary to safeguard the rights of Americans.

This debate will not occur along the usual partisan lines. Members of both parties have expressed deep concerns about revelations of abuse of the program, including suspicion-less queries by intelligence personnel for personal reasons, on U.S. citizens engaged in the George Floyd and Jan. 6 protests, and more. On the other side are advocates for the intelligence community, which insists 702 is an indispensable tool in the fight against crime, terrorism, and other critical national security interests.

Furthermore, though not technically part of 702, this debate occurs against the backdrop of the Crossfire Hurricane controversy, in which FBI agents cited allegations from Democratic-funded research by Christopher Steele to authorize surveillance of Trump-campaign operatives by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

Congress is scheduled to recess on Dec. 15, leaving just a few legislative days to hammer out this work. Pray for your elected representatives during this time that God will give them wisdom, clarity of purpose, and conviction as they seek to fulfill their responsibility as ministers of justice.

Eric Teetsel

Eric Teetsel is vice president of government relations at The Heritage Foundation.

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