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After August recess, Congress faces legislative deluge

Finishing work on Biden agenda, debt limit are top Democratic priorities

Congress has a busy next few weeks with Democrats’ two-track strategy on jobs and infrastructure bills and a possible government shutdown looming.
Congress has a busy next few weeks with Democrats’ two-track strategy on jobs and infrastructure bills and a possible government shutdown looming. (Photos by Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call (Capitol) and Shutterstock (sign); Composition by Chris Hale/CQ Roll Call)

If Congress runs on deadlines, lawmakers face a series of simultaneous sprints this fall that could reshape the U.S. economy and reverberate into next year’s campaigns to determine which party controls the House and Senate.

The most immediate of three major priorities is that the government will partially shut down on Oct. 1 unless Congress does something in the next three weeks to keep appropriations flowing past the end of the fiscal year, on Sept. 30. 

The government might also not be able to meet its financial obligations as early as October unless Congress raises or suspends its borrowing authority known as the debt limit, as outlined in a series of increasingly dire letters from Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen to congressional leaders. 

And Democrats set up a quick timeline for a two-track legislative strategy for jobs and infrastructure bills. That would entail passing a bipartisan infrastructure measure that has already passed the Senate, and coupling that with a sweeping $3.5 trillion package of social spending for health care, environment, education, job training and more through the budget reconciliation process — which is not subject to the Senate filibuster and hence prevents Republicans from blocking it.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters Sept. 8 that she was “so proud” when the Senate passed an infrastructure bill but that “they recognized that that was not the totality of the president’s vision.”

“That was important, and we will pass that legislation,” the California Democrat said. “But we can only do so as we recognize that if we’re going to build back better, we have to do so including many more people.”

That creates a slog through September as House and Senate lawmakers write, negotiate and advance what will amount to a giant package — which represents the heart of President Joe Biden’s domestic agenda — through the reconciliation process.

“Is it going to be easy on reconciliation? Absolutely not,” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer told reporters last month. “But if past is prologue, we have a chance, a good, decent chance.”

But wait, there’s more. All that arrives simultaneously with contentious issues that will require time and attention, including oversight of Biden’s withdrawal from the Afghanistan War and increased action with the House select committee that is looking into the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection. That comes as right-wing extremist groups are planning to attend a Saturday rally at the Capitol to demand “justice” for those charged in connection with the Jan. 6 attack on the building.

To that, add pressure on Democrats to respond to the end of the eviction moratorium related to the coronavirus pandemic, more restrictive state voting laws and a new Texas law that ends most legal abortions in that state. A smaller group of negotiators is still trying to hammer out a deal on an overhaul to policing policies.

No area will it be easy, and in no place is it certain. Senate Republicans have warned they will not support changes to the debt limit, which needs 60 votes to pass in the 50-50 Senate, unless Democrats change course and add it to the reconciliation bill. But that is something both Pelosi and Schumer have repeatedly ruled out. 

Contentious issues in appropriations measures increase the likelihood of a stopgap measure ahead of Oct. 1 so that current levels of funding can continue and the fight can be pushed off until later. 

Separately, lawmakers hope to pass before the end of the calendar year the fiscal 2022 defense authorization bill, which sets policy for the Pentagon and military servicemembers. The House Rules Committee will consider amendments to that chamber’s measure the week of Sept. 20, signaling that floor action is not too far down the road. 

Two-track strategy 

But few priorities take the sort of preeminence as Democratic leaders are assigning to the two infrastructure measures. They also have work to do to bridge the differences between progressives and moderates in their party

Both Democratic leaders need to keep their caucuses on board. They can lose only three votes in the House, and zero in the Senate, even with the protection the reconciliation process provides from the filibuster for the larger $3.5 trillion package.  

That means the Senate, with its narrower majority, will largely take the lead. Pelosi told reporters last month that the House would write the bill with the Senate “because it’s no use our doing a bill that is not going to pass the Senate.”

Pelosi said committees involved would advance their pieces of that legislation by Sept. 15, and they got busy doing so the week before Labor Day. 

As part of the two-track strategy, House Democrats set a Sept. 27 deadline for a floor vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill. Progressives have balked at voting for that if not coupled with the larger measure. 

Schumer likewise has set a Sept. 15 deadline to assemble the reconciliation package, telling reporters last month, “We’ll see where we move after that.” On a press call on Sept. 8, Schumer said, “Senate Democrats have been working around the clock for weeks and months with our House colleagues and the Biden administration on the Build Back Better agenda.” 

The broader bill will likely contain several disputed issues. 

Democrats have pinned their hopes on passing a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants through the budget reconciliation process — a policy change that has been stuck in partisan gridlock for years.

Among other items Democrats want to include: enhanced child care subsidies; a new paid family leave program; clean energy incentives; affordable housing funds; an expansion of Medicare to cover dental, hearing and vision benefits; and more. Such provisions could provide Democrats with a critical victory to motivate voters ahead of next year’s midterm races, typically a time when the president’s party loses congressional seats. 

Given the Senate’s 50-50 split, there’s an expectation that Senate panels likely won’t mark up their own versions of the reconciliation pieces, but rather will work with their House counterparts on the package that eventually comes out of the House.

Other priorities

That won’t mean lawmakers hit the brakes on other issues, including a measure the House passed last month that is named in honor of the late civil rights icon and Georgia Rep. John Lewis. The bill is designed to respond to several Supreme Court decisions that curtailed federal voting rights enforcement. 

That bill now faces a future stalled in the Senate because of Republican opposition and longstanding rules on filibusters. But backers plan to push for an exception to the filibuster for legislation on democracy and voting rights.

“I certainly think that there are many senators who understand the urgency of the moment. But there are, of course, a handful that we have to continue to persuade,” New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, the House Democratic Conference chair, said last month. “And that is something that will take place with increased intensity over the next few days and next few weeks.”