A packed holiday season for Congress
Here’s what’s on the agenda for the rest of the year
President Joe Biden and congressional leaders met this week at the White House, which is newly decked out for the holidays, for a standard “let’s push through to the end of the year” huddle. But a lengthy to-do list will likely keep members in the lame duck session beyond Dec. 16, their ambitious deadline.
The first item, the Respect for Marriage Act, passed the Senate on Tuesday. It heads back to the House for final consideration of an added amendment, but the bill to codify same-sex marriage in federal law will likely land on Biden’s desk for signature soon. In the meantime, there’s a lot of ground left to cover.
The government runs out of funding on Dec. 16. Lawmakers could opt for another continuing resolution (CR) to punt the problem to the new year. But Biden has a different idea. In the Roosevelt Room on Tuesday, he told Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y, and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., that he wants a yearlong bill ready before the holiday recess. The government is operating on a different continuing resolution implemented in September to give lawmakers time to work on an omnibus budget package. Schumer and McConnell said they’re still working on it.
Democrats and Republicans remain divided over what to fund. The White House asked for an additional $10 billion to help fight COVID-19 and other infectious diseases. Although the request admitted the pandemic is no longer “as destructive” as when Biden first took office, the administration said it still needs to fund research and preventative measures to combat future surges of infection. The White House request also included another $37.7 billion in assistance for Ukraine.
Though in the majority, Democrats will still need at least 10 Republicans to support an omnibus funding bill. House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy insisted he will not write a “blank check” for more Ukraine aid until some transparency measures are implemented to show exactly how the money is being used. Nevertheless, McCarthy and most Republicans support Ukraine in its nearly yearlong war against Russia.
Other options could include a one-week stopgap extension to give Congress until Dec. 23 to figure out how to fund the government. And if a bipartisan yearlong agreement doesn’t pan out, lawmakers could just create a yearlong continuing resolution instead to avoid a shutdown.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin wants Congress to avoid a long-term continuing resolution. In a letter sent last week to Schumer, he said the frequent, short term measures have turned the Pentagon’s budget into the ball in a congressional game of keep-away. Austin said the delays not only cost the Pentagon millions of dollars but also stall military procedure and strategic initiatives.
“Under the CR, the progress funded by our [fiscal year 2023] research and development budget—the largest requested in history—cannot take place,” Austin wrote. “We must break this pattern of extensive inaction. We can’t outcompete China with our hands tied behind our back three, four, five, or six months of every fiscal year.”
Congress also must pass the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) before the end of the year. But the national defense policy budget encountered another hurdle on Wednesday. Thirteen conservative Republican senators, led by Rand Paul of Kentucky and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, co-wrote a letter to other Senate GOP leaders insisting they repeal the military’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate before moving forward with the NDAA.
“The vaccination mandate has forced our nation’s young patriotic men and women to choose between their faith, their medical autonomy, and their careers,” Paul told reporters at a press conference at the Capitol on Wednesday afternoon. “At a time when the military is struggling to meet targets for recruitment, the administration is firing soldiers we invested in and trained. Congress should take action. And we’re taking action by saying we will not vote to get on the NDAA … unless we have a vote on ending this military vaccine mandate.”
Paul and the co-signers added that the Defense Department should reinstate every service member who was ousted for a refusal to get the vaccine with back pay. According to Pentagon data reported by Military Times, this includes roughly 3,300 Marines, 1,800 soldiers, 1,800 sailors, and 900 airmen.
Congress already approved two versions of the NDAA earlier this year, but negotiations are still in progress to finalize the full text. According to Politico, lawmakers are prepared to authorize $847 billion for the NDAA, $45 billion more than Biden requested.
The Senate resumed its spree of confirming Biden’s judicial picks this week in a final sprint toward the end of the session. Anyone not confirmed by the end of December must be reappointed by the president and go through committee hearings all over again in the new session. But advancing nominees through the committee and onto the Senate floor for procedural votes takes time that the Senate wanted to devote to other priorities earlier in the year. Senate Judiciary Chair Richard Durbin, D-Ill., says it’s time to pick up the pace.
“I want to do this for my colleagues who have worked on these for months, and they shouldn’t face more delay. We have more than 100 vacancies on the federal bench,” Durbin said in early November.
As if the season weren’t busy enough, the entire docket was upset this week when the likelihood of a railroad strike threatened supply chains and holiday shopping yet again. Four railroad workers unions are holding out on a Biden-led deal. The offer would grant workers 24 percent raises over the next five years and no penalties for time off for medical appointments. But the deal does not address sick leave—under current conditions, rail workers don’t get any. Each union handles sick leave differently, so paid time off for illness is not guaranteed. The new deal gives workers one extra personal day, but the hold-out unions are demanding at least 15. All 12 unions must agree before it can be adopted.
The House passed an emergency resolution 290-137 on Wednesday in an attempt to force the contract to go through and avert a strike that would start as early as next week. The chamber also narrowly passed a separate measure to give rail workers seven sick days. The Railway Labor Act of 1926 gives Congress authority to intervene in rail-labor quarrels, especially if the dispute could upset interstate commerce. But some lawmakers say it’s not Congress’s job to subvert the will of the workers.
“Just because Congress has the authority to impose a heavy-handed solution does not mean we should,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said in a statement Tuesday. “It is wrong for the Biden administration, which has failed to fight for workers, to ask Congress to impose a deal the workers themselves have rejected.”
Nevertheless, both Republican and Democratic leaders pushed a deal to avoid an economic disaster, passing the contract agreement on Thursday afternoon. Only 15 senators voted against the emergency bill. The separate bill giving seven sick days failed in a 52-43 vote, just missing the 60-vote threshold. Another proposal, championed by Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, would have sent the unions and the railroads back to the bargaining table. It likewise failed on Thursday.
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