With Outcome Still in Doubt, Congress Opens an Uncertain Post-Election Session

WASHINGTON — Midterm election results that defied expectations, leaving Democrats in control of the Senate and the House still up for grabs, have scrambled the agenda in Congress for the remainder of the year, leaving lawmakers toiling to determine how much can be accomplished in a brief year-end session that opens on Monday.

Senator Catherine Cortez Masto’s victory in Nevada on Saturday guaranteed that Democrats would retain control of the Senate next year, easing pressure to use the next several weeks to fill judicial vacancies for President Biden. And regardless of which party wins control of the House, Congress must enact legislation to keep the government funded past a mid-December deadline and to set defense policy for the coming year.

But the prospect of a Republican takeover of the House could fuel greater urgency among Democrats to act quickly in a so-called lame-duck session to raise the statutory debt limit, thus avoiding a partisan showdown next year that could roil financial markets and put the full faith and credit of the United States at risk.

“It’s something that we will look at over the next few weeks,” Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, said on Sunday about the possibility of addressing the debt ceiling in a lame-duck session.

A looming runoff in Georgia to decide the last remaining Senate seat could also shape the agenda, leading Democrats to tailor it in whatever way might help Senator Raphael Warnock, who will face off against Herschel Walker, his Republican opponent, on Dec. 6.

“It’s going to take a little while still for lame-duck priorities to really be set, given the uncertainty about the outcomes of the elections still,” Anita Dunn, a senior adviser to Mr. Biden, said on “Face the Nation” on CBS on Sunday. “I don’t think anybody would have predicted that we would still not know who would control the United States House of Representatives the following Sunday.”

The legislative crush will coincide with a season of jockeying for power on Capitol Hill, as lawmakers in both parties sort through the fallout from last week’s elections and make consequential decisions about who should lead them in the next Congress. Both Republican leaders are facing potential challenges given their party’s historically poor performance. Newly elected members of Congress began their orientation on Sunday, flying into Washington and meeting their colleagues. Republicans are slated to hold leadership elections this week; Democrats will do so after Thanksgiving.

The debt ceiling question is among the most pressing before Congress. House Republicans have suggested that if they won the majority, they would use any vote to raise the nation’s legal borrowing limit — expected to be needed as soon as early next year — as a way to force Mr. Biden to accept deep spending cuts, raising the prospect of a fiscal standoff.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi suggested on Sunday that Democrats might seek to address the matter in the coming weeks, alluding in an interview with CNN to her work to “prepare for the lame duck, whether it’s debt ceiling or whether it’s other legislation that is necessary for the people as we go forward.”

Several Democrats have called for passage of such a measure in the post-election session, and Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen has also pressed for Congress to act to defuse the threat.

The issue could become part of a crowded lame-duck agenda that is also expected to include action on several bipartisan measures, including House-passed legislation to codify protections for same-sex marriage and a bill to overhaul the 135-year-old law that former President Donald J. Trump tried to exploit to overturn the 2020 election.

As of early Sunday evening, neither party had secured the 218 seats necessary for a House majority, and results in 19 districts had yet to be declared by The Associated Press. That has left the agenda equally in limbo, with less than two dozen days of legislative work scheduled before the end of the year. Congress is set to return to Washington on Monday for five days before a weeklong Thanksgiving break.

“There’s lots of things that I know members want to try to accomplish before the end of the year,” said Senator Tina Smith, Democrat of Minnesota, pointing as an example to a bill Mr. Warnock has championed that would cap the price of insulin for Americans who are not on Medicare. “I have no doubt that the November, December time frame is going to be extremely complicated.”

Lawmakers are still haggling over the annual defense authorization bill that will set priorities for the Pentagon and U.S. military policy. A spending package — most likely stuffed with funding for projects championed by retiring and rank-and-file lawmakers alike — needs to become law by Dec. 16 to avoid a government shutdown.

Ms. Dunn said the administration would also push for additional funding for Ukraine in its war against Russia, as well as disaster relief after hurricanes ravaged Puerto Rico and Florida.

“I honestly think that there’s going to be a lot of weekends we’re going to still be in D.C.,” said Senator Jon Tester, Democrat of Montana, who ticked through a series of agriculture and veterans affairs legislation he aimed to push through. “And that’s OK with me. We need to stay there until we get the work done.”

With Democratic lawmakers jubilant that they had held off a wave of Republican challengers, Representative Pramila Jayapal of Washington, the chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, signaled that the group’s most liberal members were further emboldened to push for their priorities.

“We’ll put together our full agenda over the next week or so,” Ms. Jayapal said at a news conference, pointing to an extension of an expanded monthly payment to most families with children that had lapsed last year and immigration reform as some possibilities before the end of the year.

Any of those measures, however, would require at least 10 Republican votes in the Senate if all 50 senators who caucus with Democrats remain united. And they would have to compete with a number of other must-pass bills and pet priorities for senior and departing lawmakers.

“It’s so difficult to predict — as you know, these lame ducks, especially majority changes, can be lightning quick, or they can go through mid-December,” said Representative Kevin Brady of Texas, the top Republican on the Ways and Means Committee, adding that he had been discussing a tax policy package with his Democratic counterparts. “I feel like there is an opportunity to do some good policy.”

Mr. Schumer has said that he plans to bring legislation that would codify protections for same-sex marriage to the Senate floor after delaying a vote before the midterms. He also promised Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, a centrist Democrat now in cycle for 2024, that he would work to find a path forward to pass Mr. Manchin’s plan to streamline the permitting of energy infrastructure and fossil fuel projects before the end of the year.

A bipartisan group of senators has urged a vote on legislation that would overhaul the Electoral Count Act and how Congress certifies electoral victories, in a direct response to the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021. That measure is unlikely to get substantial support with a House Republican majority. And Ms. Jayapal and other lawmakers continue to push for legislation that would tighten national antitrust laws and toughen regulations for the largest tech companies, which stalled in the Senate over the summer.

For now, much about the lame-duck session remains up in the air — including how power struggles in both parties will shake out. Representative Hakeem Jeffries, the New York Democrat who is widely seen as a potential successor to Ms. Pelosi, declined to speculate about the outcome and impact of his party’s leadership elections.

“With respect to the future, we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it,” he said, adding that his focus was on “making sure that we can land the planes that are necessary over the next few weeks to continue to get the business of the people done.”

Sumber: www.nytimes.com

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