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Back to session

Congress reconvenes with a small but mighty to-do list for September

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer leaves the Senate chamber after passage of the Inflation Reduction Act. Getty Images/Photo by Drew Angerer

Back to session

Before heading back to their home states for the August recess, lawmakers sped through several major bills and a “vote-a-rama” on measures, including increased medical support for veterans, the Inflation Reduction Act, and competitive investment in microchips. Then they went home for state business, vacations, and campaigning at summer county fairs in preparation for the midterms.

The Senate reconvened on Tuesday, and the House arrives back on Capitol grounds next week. While the legislative laundry list might look shorter than it did in July, it has roughly four key agenda items that need to be addressed this month. With midterm elections in only nine weeks, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., is likely to cut short October session days to allow lawmakers to race back home and plunge into their campaigns.

Budget 2023: It’s that time of year again to figure out how to fund the government. Congress has less than 30 days until the current budget expires on Oct. 1. All 12 appropriations bills are on the docket, including an emergency funding request from the White House. The Biden administration is asking for an additional $22.4 billion for COVID-19 response, $13.7 billion for aid to Ukraine, $4.5 billion for monkeypox response, and $6.5 billion for natural disasters. But Congress is not ready to say yes so quickly.

It’s likely that Senate Democrats will propose a continuing resolution to buy enough time through December to debate the budget. This will place the burden on a “lame duck” congressional session in December. A continuing resolution or a stopgap spending bill will still requires 60 votes in the Senate to overcome a filibuster, and now is the time when lawmakers try to add extra items to the budget.

Respect for Marriage Act: Just before recess, the House passed text that would codify a right to same-sex marriage in federal law. To pass the Senate, the bill will need unanimous Democratic consent plus 10 Republican votes, but this might not be as difficult as it sounds. At least four GOP senators—Susan Collins of Maine, Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Rob Portman of Ohio—have indicated they will vote yes. Collins said she hopes Schumer brings it to the floor this month.

Punchbowl News, the online political news daily, broke details that Senate Democrats are considering adding this measure onto the 2023 fiscal year budget—a must-pass bill. Even supporters of the act think this might not be a good idea. Lawmakers like Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., said she’d rather have it brought to the floor as a standalone bill. And Republicans would rather pass a continuing resolution on the budget without an assortment of added bills attached.

“I think it’s, frankly, a political stunt,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Tuesday. Portman agreed and said adding a same-sex marriage provision would cost Republican votes on the budget and risk a government shutdown.

Schumer hasn’t determined a calendar yet. He promised to bring it for a vote but indicated confirmation of circuit court judges needs to come first.

Judicial confirmations: Since President Joe Biden took office, the Senate has confirmed 76 judicial nominees, the most since President John F. Kennedy. In 2019, the Trump administration shortened the timeline for confirming judges, but Schumer said it will still take a significant part of the September session to get to all of Biden’s latest picks. The country has roughly 77 federal bench vacancies, and there could be 40 more by the end of the year. As of this week, 29 nominees have been announced, five are awaiting committee votes, and 22 are waiting for the final floor vote.

“We’re producing judges at a historic clip—good, quality people with thorough investigations, and they’re piling up on the floor. I’m urging my colleagues to set aside some time,” Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told Politico.

Democrats say the pace needs to pick up even more. The Supreme Court returned the issue of abortion to the states in its landmark Dobbs v. Jackson decision, and pro-abortion Democrats want to install as many liberal judges as possible before the midterms, when Republicans might reclaim a congressional majority. During a relatively slow legislative month, Schumer said it’s time to focus on getting judges through before elections.

Permitting reforms: Backroom negotiations finally got Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., on board with the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), but he gave his vote in exchange for promised changes to environmental permits and infrastructure projects. Those have historically been a Republican agenda item. The reforms would speed up fossil fuel and energy projects, bypassing some governmental red tape.

House Natural Resources Chairman Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., has collected 47 signatures so far to petition Democrats to write the reforms as a standalone bill. The letter claims that wrapping permitting reforms in the budget would “silence the voices of frontline and environmental justice communities by insulating them from scrutiny.”

“The IRA is a huge environmental win, on balance,” Grijalva wrote for Newsweek. “Let’s not weaken its impact by following it up with an [American Petroleum Institute] oil package that even the Trump administration wasn’t able to push through.”

No Republicans voted for the IRA, so the Democratic caucus can’t afford to lose a large chunk of House Democrats. At the same time, though, Manchin’s vote in the 50-50 Senate has held up legislation before.

While walking between meetings on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, Schumer told reporters that he will make good on his deal with Manchin by putting permitting reforms into a stopgap spending measure.

Carolina Lumetta

Carolina is a WORLD reporter and a graduate of the World Journalism Institute and Wheaton College. She resides in Washington, D.C.


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