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The quacking begins: A look at the lame-duck agenda

Lawmakers have work to do on spending, taxes, defense and more, but time is running out

Top Senate appropriators Patrick J. Leahy, left, and Richard C. Shelby are both retiring.
Top Senate appropriators Patrick J. Leahy, left, and Richard C. Shelby are both retiring. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Lawmakers returned to Capitol Hill on Monday for a busy “lame duck” agenda, and an open question is how the midterm results — Democrats maintaining Senate control next year, with Republicans potentially headed for a very narrow House majority — will affect this year’s remaining work.

Here’s a look at some of what’s left to do in the lame duck, the name given the two-month period after the new Congress is elected but during which the current Congress still holds power.

Appropriations: Leaders hope to pass a fiscal 2023 omnibus spending package before the December holidays. Current funding expires Dec. 16, and the top Senate appropriators — Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., and Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala. — are both retiring. But there isn’t much time to negotiate.

Another round of Ukraine aid could go into an omnibus deal, as Kyiv pushes for additional weapons and ammunition. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has said the GOP is leery of giving Ukraine a “blank check.” Hurricane recovery assistance is another candidate for an omnibus.

Taxes: Talks are likely to ramp up on a year-end package, with an interest in clearing the decks before the new Congress.

One motivation is a bipartisan measure on retirement savings. In addition, Republicans want to extend business tax breaks that otherwise phase down under the 2017 tax law, while Democrats are focused on expanding tax benefits for families.

Health: Lawmakers have priorities beyond just fiscal 2023 funding for health-related programs.

For one, provider groups want Congress to stop multiple Medicare cuts that are slated to take effect next year. Federal Medicaid funding for U.S. territories is also up for reauthorization, as it falls under a different umbrella than funds for states. Provisions left out of a five-year Food and Drug Administration user fee bill could also come up, as could a mental health package; senators, who are taking a different strategic tack, released part of their related package on Thursday.

Defense: Although the Senate had been expected to take up the defense authorization bill on the floor as soon as this week, that potentially time-consuming process may be circumvented in the interest of the calendar. Last year, the Senate did not pass a defense policy bill but instead adopted, along with the House, a final conference report and sent it to the White House.

Don’t be surprised if that happens again. Aides are said to have already begun writing that final “conferenced” measure to save time.

Debt limit, same-sex marriage and more: Lawmakers could still try to suspend or raise the debt limit in the lame duck. Senate sponsors of a bill to codify same-sex marriage rights hope to garner the GOP votes needed to avoid a filibuster. Changes to the law that governs the counting of electoral votes will get a final push as well, potentially boosted by the unsuccessful prominent campaigns of a number of 2020 “election deniers.” And though Senate Democrats will hold power again next year, expect them to confirm a number of remaining judicial and executive branch nominees, lest President Joe Biden have to resubmit them in January.

David Lerman, John M. Donnelly, Laura Weiss, Sandyha Raman, Jessie Hellmann and Lauren Clason contributed to this report.

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