(WASHINGTON) — Lawmakers returned from their Thanksgiving break Monday with much work to accomplish and relatively little time to accomplish it in.
Here are five things to watch for as Congress rolls back to Washington for the end-of-the-year legislative sprint:
Ukraine funding faces its toughest test yet
Congress has gone nearly a year without rubber-stamping additional aid to Ukraine, and there’s a growing sense from lawmakers on both sides that the window of opportunity to approve more funds to assist the country’s ongoing fight against Russian aggression is closing.
Lawmakers will aim to pass some sort of emergency funding supplemental between now and the December holiday recess. If they fail to get it done in time, some lawmakers are projecting it could be the end of the road for any sort of Ukraine aid. In a letter to his colleagues outlining priorities for this upcoming period of session, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced he could put the president’s $106 billion national security package, which includes aid for Israel, Ukraine, Taiwan and the southern border, on the Senate floor for a vote as soon as the week of Dec. 4.
But what that package is going to look like is increasingly difficult to pin down. Republicans in both chambers have been emphatic that Ukraine aid won’t pass without policy changes impacting migration at the southern border. But negotiations over asylum and parole policies have vexed bipartisan negotiators.
A bipartisan group of senators continued talking over the recess to try to reach a consensus opinion on what sort of border provisions could appease Republicans’ demands for policy changes while simultaneously passing the Democratic-controlled Senate. Schumer has urged his colleagues to continue those conversations.
President Joe Biden and Senate leaders from both parties remain hopeful that aid to Israel will ride on whatever border and Ukraine agreement can be reached. But there’s a growing contingent of Republicans who’d like Israel aid approved on its own, as the House has already done.
Debate over this nebulous package is expected to suck up much of the oxygen the remaining weeks of this year.
GOP Rep. George Santos faces expulsion after explosive ethics report
George Santos’ days in Congress could be numbered. Another vote to expel him is likely to take place on the House floor later this week, but the threshold is high to expel a member — two thirds of the chamber would have to vote in favor of removal. However, a growing number of Republicans want to see Santos expelled.
Will there be enough to remove him? That’s still to be determined. On X Spaces last Friday, Santos himself acknowledged he will likely be removed and will “wear it like a badge of honor.”
A House Ethics Committee’s report contained damning details about how he allegedly used campaign dollars for his own personal enrichment — including things such as Botox treatments, trips to Atlantic City, designer goods and purchases on the website OnlyFans, known for its adult content. Investigators said their monthslong probe of the New York congressman, who is also facing separate federal charges, revealed a “complex web of unlawful activity.”
In a rare move earlier this month, Rep. Michael Guest, the Republican chairman of the committee, filed a resolution to expel Santos from Congress — which formally jump-started the process to remove the embattled congressman from office.
A growing number of House Republicans who did not vote to remove Santos earlier this month say they want him expelled following the scathing report from the House Ethics Committee.
A spokesman for Speaker Mike Johnson said in a statement that the Santos report had “very troubling findings” but “encourages all involved to consider the best interests of the institution as this matter is addressed further.”
Santos has already pleaded not guilty to 23 federal charges. He called the bipartisan report a “politicized smear” and has said he will not run for reelection in 2024, but plans to finish out the rest of his term.
Angst over military promotion blockade could reach a fever pitch
Sen. Tommy Tuberville will face even more pressure to relent on his blockade on confirmation of all military nominees as the Senate returns from Thanksgiving break.
Tuberville has been blocking the promotions of almost all military nominees for 10 months in objection to a Department of Defense policy that reimburses military members who travel out of state to obtain abortions.
Just before the Senate left for recess, tensions over the hold were reaching a new high. Republicans tried and failed twice on the floor to get around Tuberville, asking for his consent to confirm dozens of individual nominees. Tuberville blocked every single one of them.
Democrats, fed up with Tuberville’s blockade, took the early steps of moving to get around Tuberville in mid-November, passing a resolution out of the Senate Rules Committee that would allow the Senate to temporarily side-step Tuberville’s hold. It passed out of committee, but not with the backing of a single Republican.
The Senate now returns with Schumer promising a vote on that resolution before the year is out if Tuberville doesn’t stand down.
It’s not clear if Republicans will lend the nine necessary votes to get that resolution passed. There’s growing frustration within the GOP about what Tuberville has been doing, but many Republicans remain reluctant to do anything that could give the appearance of curbing the power of a single senator.
What we do know is that tension is mounting. Could it be enough to pass this temporary maneuver to get around Tuberville?
Giant defense policy bill prepares for a showdown
Tuberville’s military holds will no doubt also be a part of the looming showdown over the National Defense Authorization Act, a must-pass military spending policy bill that presidents have signed before the new year for over six decades.
In order to get the government funded just before the Senate recess, Schumer acquiesced to demands from the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee that representatives from the House and Senate hold formalized meetings to try to reconcile differences between the House and Senate versions of the massive bill.
Conference meetings will have to happen in haste if lawmakers hope to pass the defense authorization bill by the end of the year. A public conference is going to thrust several controversial provisions that the House and Senate are at loggerheads over into the spotlight.
Of chief focus: the House bill includes language that would end the DoD abortion travel policy that Tuberville so opposes. Ending the policy through use of the National Defense Authorization Act would be one way to get around Tuberville’s objection, but it’s one Senate Democrats are grossly opposed to.
The conference will also force lawmakers to publicly duke it out over policies that curb transgender medical care and diversity, and end equity and inclusion programs. These provisions were added to the House version of the bill in amendment votes that were a win for House Freedom Conference members.
All of it will have to be worked out before lawmakers leave for the end of the year.
First government funding deadline looms, setting up a test for Speaker Johnson
Any victory lap that lawmakers were taking for temporarily funding the government before Thanksgiving is coming to its short-lived end.
Now that they’re back, lawmakers are back on the clock to try to come to a longer-term government funding solution before the first tranche of short-term funding, which funds six of the 12 annual appropriations bills, runs out on Jan. 19. With the Christmas holiday looming, there’s not a lot of time left.
Both chambers still have work to do on passing their own separate appropriations for Fiscal Year 2024, which began in October. Even if they manage to pass them, the House and Senate have some major disagreements about what should be in those bills, and about how much they should cost. There’s still disagreement about top-line spending, and lawmakers will need to quickly get on the same page if they hope to get bills passed.
House Republicans want to extract some sizable government cuts in these bills. It’ll be a herculean task for newly-minted Speaker Johnson to wrangle his slim majority to get behind conferenced spending bills.
But Johnson made clear he will pass no more short-term continuing resolutions to fund the government. So lawmakers will need to get to work, or risk a partial shutdown on their hands in January.
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