It is the most productive time of year on Capitol Hill — after the election and before Republicans take over the House of Representatives — when the current Congress tries to cram some of its most vital work into a few short weeks.
The U.S. government is up against some hard deadlines, a narrow timeline and a whole lot of unfinished business.
Lawmakers need to avert a government shutdown, authorize Pentagon policy, decide what to do with former President Donald Trump’s tax returns and wrap up the work of the House Jan. 6, 2021, committee.
If they can find the time, lawmakers could also raise the debt ceiling and safeguard future elections.
Here’s what to watch for in the twilight of 2022:
First, the government runs out of authority to spend money on Friday, December 16. The House and Senate will have to act before then to avert a government shutdown.
Second, the newly elected Congress will be sworn in on January 3. Republicans will then be in charge of the House, and Democrats will have a narrow 51-49 majority in the Senate. Everything resets in the new Congress, and lawmakers will have to start from scratch on anything they don’t finish up this month.
Job No. 1: Fund the government
Rather than pass a dozen funding bills in turn, lawmakers are poised to roll all the spending bills for the massive federal government into one bill that could approach or exceed $1.5 trillion.
The problem is that they’re still negotiating, and Republicans and Democrats in the Senate have not reached an agreement on how much the government can spend, much less the specifics. They’re still $26 billion apart, according to Republican Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama. The most likely current scenario is the House and Senate each pass short-term, one-week funding bills to keep the lights on while they continue to hash out the larger funding bill.
While officials have emphasized a government shutdown is unlikely, federal agencies have been warned to prepare for one per standard procedure.
One major looming question is whether Senate Republicans and Democrats can agree on a bill to fund the government for a full year or whether they have to punt to the next Congress. Democrats will want to avoid that fate since the GOP-controlled House will likely insist on spending cuts as soon as it can. Read more in CNN’s full report that includes reporting from Capitol Hill and the White House.
Figure out who will be in charge
It’s not yet clear who will lead Republicans in the House next year, much less how they would react to an immediate funding fight if only a short-term spending bill can get through by January.
The current GOP leader, Kevin McCarthy, does not yet have the votes of many of the most conservative Freedom Caucus Republicans, and he’s being encouraged to take more concrete stands against spending. Finding a funding agreement that can pass through the House and the Senate and get President Joe Biden’s signature gets much more difficult starting January 3.
Authorize Pentagon policy
In addition to writing checks, Congress authorizes government activity through policy bills, including the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act, which authorizes $858 billion in annual defense spending.
It’s a sprawling endeavor, and this year’s version passed by the House gives members of the military a 4.6% pay raise, gives new support to Ukraine and NATO, and retools U.S. air power and land defense efforts. It also rescinds a COVID-19 vaccine requirement for service members, a move that Biden has opposed.
Senators are expected to take up the bill this week. It should get bipartisan support, but will also eat up valuable time on the Senate floor, where Democrats also want to push through judicial nominees. Read more about the defense bill.
Raise the debt ceiling
One thing Democrats would like to do — but probably, at this point, cannot — is raise the debt ceiling.
Republicans, particularly in the House, plan to use the nation’s borrowing limit as a bargaining chip to force spending cuts next year. The current debt ceiling of $31.4 trillion will likely be reached in the coming weeks, which means raising it will be a major fight early in 2023.
How much more does the government spend than it takes in? This is from a CNN Business report Monday: “For fiscal year 2023, which started in October, the government is running a deficit of $336 billion, which is $20 billion narrower than the comparable year-ago period.”
Wrap up the January 6 committee
Republicans will shut down the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection when they take control in January. GOP lawmakers plan to flip the script and investigate the committee’s activity.
But first, the committee, which features Democrats and two anti-Trump Republicans, will issue its much-anticipated report on December 21. Also look for the committee to recommend the Department of Justice prosecute Trump or members of his inner circle.
Meanwhile, Jack Smith, the newly appointed special counsel, has been busy ramping up a pair of criminal probes involving the former president, all of which could explode into public view if charges are ultimately brought. Read the latest on Smith’s work.
Decide what to do with Trump’s taxes
Now that the House Ways and Means Committee has six years of Trump’s tax returns, it must figure out what to do with them in just a few weeks.
There’s probably no time for a thorough review, and Republicans will have little appetite for a Trump tax investigation when they take control of the House.
Democrats could move to make some of Trump’s tax information public — on top of what was already published by The New York Times in 2020. But there could be a political cost to simply releasing the returns since Democrats obtained them in order to scrutinize IRS audit policy. Read more about Trump’s taxes.
Pass the Electoral Count Act
It’s a bipartisan idea to make some major clarifications to election law and cut down on the possibility of another Jan. 6, 2021. Read here about what’s in the bill, which is specifically designed to guard against Insurrection 2.0.
But there may be no time to pass the proposal — there are similar but competing versions in the House and Senate. The Senate version, in particular, has bipartisan support. Republicans in the House may not be interested in the legislation once they take control in January.
If the Electoral Count Act can pass, it could be slipped into that massive spending bill. It hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves, but this could be a good example of lawmakers working together.
But that’s a very open question, since that massive spending bill has not yet been put together.
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