The 118th Congress will be sworn in on January 3, 2023. Meanwhile, the current lame duck Congress is back at work following last week’s elections with a full to-do list to check off over roughly the next six weeks.
Busy Agenda with Leadership in Flux
Congress returned to work Monday to a volatile post-election landscape, with next year’s control of the House still in question, a runoff Senate race still to be contested in Georgia, and Republicans rattled by an unexpectedly strong showing on Election Day by Democrats.
Despite this, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who said in September, “We still have much to do and many important bills to consider,” laid it on the line for his Republican colleagues.
“The Republican Party has a choice,” he said Sunday during a press conference. “I say to the Republican Senators and to Leader McConnell, we are willing to work with you to get things done for the American people.”
But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) was facing his own intra-party turmoil ahead of a closed-door leadership race on Wednesday, which some members wanted to postpone while they do a post-mortem on the midterms.
“We need to have serious discussions,” said a draft letter led by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) and signed by a handful of other GOP senators.
Priority #1: Fund the Government
Meanwhile, Democrats are looking to get on with the business of the 117th Congress.
“The number one thing that we have to do when we come back in the lame duck is fund the government,” Schumer said on Monday morning. “You know, government funding runs out at the end of December.”
In fact, the government’s piggy bank goes broke on December 16th if Congress doesn’t get to work on a delayed $1.5 trillion+ package. Aides on both sides of the aisle tell reporters that Congress is on track to meet this deadline, despite a lack of focus during the closing weeks of campaign season.
However, some House Republicans are committed to slashing spending, while any appropriations will require bipartisan support in the Senate, so it’s not a slam-dunk.
Some Democrats Want to Tackle the Debt Ceiling
Top Democrats have privately been discussing the possibility of using the budget reconciliation process—an up or down vote—to raise the statutory debt limit during the lame duck.
The path to enacting a filibuster-proof budget bill would be “procedurally treacherous,” according to the Congressional newsletter, Roll Call; however, such a move would take the issue off the table, should Republicans assume control of the House in January.
“Me, I’d get rid of the debt ceiling altogether. It serves no function except to create leverage for people who are willing to blow up the economy,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) said on Sunday.
Schumer vowed on Sunday to “look at” the issue over the next few weeks, but said he needs to talk to the other members of leadership and see where the makeup of the House ultimately lands.
January 6 Report & Electoral Count Reform
The January 6 Committee investigating the attack on the Capitol has until the end of the Congressional year to complete its work.
Committee staff members are telling reporters that the final report will focus on former President Trump and his involvement in the plot to overthrow the 2020 election.
Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of Senators is urging the lame duck Congress to vote on legislation that would reform the Electoral Count Act. The archaic language in the current law, written in 1887, was exploited by those who attempted to overturn the 2020 election results when Congress certified the votes on January 6, 2021.
Senate to Vote on Same-sex Marriage
Back in September, the Senate had put off a vote to protect same-sex marriage after Republicans in the chamber had asked for more time to lock down support.
Now with the election over and next year’s Senate majority secured by the Democrats, the vote is back on tap in the lame duck.
Schumer has promised to hold a vote on the bill, possibly as soon as this week.
The House has already passed legislation legalizing same-sex marriage, called the “Respect for Marriage Act.” The bill is intended to ensure that the Supreme Court does not take away the right that was guaranteed by the 2015 Supreme Court decision Obergefell v Hodges, as conservative Justice Clarence Thomas suggested was possible when the Court struck down the right to abortion.
What About Codifying Roe?
Speaking of which, President Biden in October promised to codify Roe v Wade if Democrats won Congressional majority in the midterm elections.
Roe was the 1973 Supreme Court decision that had guaranteed the Constitutional right to abortion until the Supreme Court overturned it in June with its Dobbs v Jackson ruling.
With Democrats securing the Senate majority over the weekend, Biden was asked on Monday what Americans could expect Congress to do regarding access to abortion.
“I don’t think they can expect much of anything other than we’re going to maintain our positions,” the President responded during a press conference while traveling in Bali, Indonesia. “I don’t think there’s enough votes to codify unless something happens unusual in the House.”
As of Monday, the fate of the House majority was undecided with votes still being counted in several races. However, even with Democrats holding 50 seats plus the Vice Presidency in the Senate, passing a bill through that chamber would likely require 60 votes, which would necessitate about 10 Republicans supporting it.
White House Wants More Covid Funding
This week the White House is finalizing a request for about $10 billion in public health funds by year’s end, hoping it will be added to the lame duck spending package.
The bulk of the payout would go to an $8.25 billion successor to 2020’s vaccine fast-track effort Operation Warp Speed that some are calling “Project Covid Shield.” Its focus would be to develop vaccines and treatments effective against the evolving virus.
Officials are also debating putting some of the money to other contagions, like hepatitis C and monkeypox.
But with many Congressional Republicans still asking questions about how earlier Covid funds have been spent, it remains to be seen what kind of support this request will receive.