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This holiday season, NDAA shaping up as end-of-year ‘Christmas tree’

Don’t expect Capitol Hill to be ‘free from drama this December,’ former aide says

The Cross Hall inside the White House on Monday, decked out for the holiday season.
The Cross Hall inside the White House on Monday, decked out for the holiday season. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Despite an action-packed year on Capitol Hill, lawmakers return this week to a long to-do list that includes issues ranging from military aid for allies to surveillance programs to the massive Pentagon policy bill — and much more.

House members have spent much of 2023 in a prolonged battle over federal spending, but the three-week sprint to a planned holiday recess will force them to try reaching common ground on all those matters, and others like reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration and dealing with a number of set-to-expire tax and health provisions.

But first, House members are expected to send one troubled Republican lawmaker back to civilian life, starting the holiday session with some end-of-year fireworks typically reserved for government funding fights.

“Complicating this work period is the fact that the House will likely spend precious floor time this week expelling Rep. George Santos, adding to the acrimony in the chamber and eroding the Republicans’ already-slim majority,” said Aaron Cutler, a partner at Hogan Lovells who was a senior leadership staffer for former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va.

“While we don’t have a potential shutdown hanging over us like a sword of Damocles, that doesn’t mean Congress will be free from drama this December,” Cutler added.

The post-Thanksgiving session will be a test for Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., who mildly irked the conservative bloc that pushed out his predecessor, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., by pushing a “clean” and “laddered” stopgap spending measure to avert a government shutdown — at least until Jan. 19, when the first tranche of the continuing resolution expires, and then Feb. 2, when the second does so. Johnson will seek ways to pass a number of high-profile measures before the holidays, some likely with big numbers of Democratic votes, without conjuring the wrath of that conservative group.

“There might be some progress on some things at the margins between now and whenever they get fed up with each other again and leave for Christmas and New Year’s,” said one former federal official who served in multiple executive branch posts. “But will they do anything that’s lasting and meaningful? Not a chance.

“There’s a high probability they’ll even leave town a little early,” the official added.

The House is slated to depart for its holiday break on Dec. 14. The Senate is scheduled to stick around one more day, but Dec. 15 is a Friday — and the chamber has worked very few Fridays this year. In a “Dear Colleague” letter sent on Sunday evening, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., warned, “Senators should expect long days and nights, and potentially weekends in December” to finish its pre-holiday work. But, like many majority leaders of the past, he has made such threats before without following through.

“The days that they are scheduled to be in before the end of the … session is not much time. I think it would be a holiday miracle if much can get settled, given the hyperpartisanship, particularly in the House,” said G. William Hoagland, another former aide to top GOP leaders who is now with the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Supplemental

Among the most high-profile issues awaiting lawmakers is what to do — if anything — about the battlefield needs of Ukraine and Israel. Some Democratic lawmakers over the Thanksgiving break warned that Ukraine is running low on ammunition in its war with Russia. Israel has fired thousands of rockets at Hamas and Islamic Jihad targets inside Gaza and has begun a ground offensive inside the Palestinian enclave.

But that same bloc of conservative members in the House that led the effort to boot McCarthy, joined by other House and Senate Republicans, has expressed skepticism about giving Kyiv additional U.S.-made weapons and munitions, all of which are extremely costly. So far, Washington has sent $44.2 billion in military assistance to Ukraine, according to the State Department.

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., a member of the Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees, said last week that he expects ongoing talks among senators to produce a bill that should hit the floor before the end-of-year break.

While GOP senators want southern border funding added to any potential Ukraine-Israel-Taiwan supplemental, Hoagland said he’s “skeptical” that lawmakers can agree on the parameters of what essentially would be a mini immigration measure.

Congress watchers described a still-under-construction bicameral fiscal 2024 National Defense Authorization Act as the one bill to watch. Cutler said it likely will be a “proverbial Christmas tree” that likely also will include “tax policy provisions and health care extenders.” Top House and Senate hawks have been hammering out differences on the military sections for some time, and a possible conference committee is not expected to slow down work on ironing out the remaining sticking points.

Health and taxes

For the past several years, Congress has stepped in to mitigate Medicare rate cuts to physicians scheduled by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to take effect the following year. This year’s 3.37 percent cut is slated to take effect Jan. 1, but there is no year-end spending deal to attach a fix to, as has been done in the past. However, there is precedent for CMS holding claims until Congress passes legislation impacting payments. The Senate Finance Committee recently advanced legislation that would partially mitigate the cuts, but the timing for a floor vote is not yet clear.

And top tax writers in both chambers are still working toward a potential deal to revive more lucrative business tax breaks, including for research and development, while also expanding the child tax credit, an agreement that would break a yearlong impasse on a bipartisan tax package.

But even if the tax committees can strike a deal, there are major roadblocks to getting it to President Joe Biden’s desk by the end of the year, particularly after Congress kicked the next government funding deadline into January and by doing so took a typical legislative vehicle for tax measures off the table.

Any must-pass legislation this December will likely draw buzz as a potential home for the bipartisan tax deal, including a Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization that would already renew federal aviation taxes.

Rules change?

The Senate also is on track to vote during the three-week session on a measure that would allow senators to bypass Alabama GOP Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s hold on military promotions and nominations. The Rules and Administration Committee, on a 9-7 party-line vote, advanced the measure on Nov. 14. Defense hawks from both parties are eager to end the monthslong standoff, rooted in Tuberville’s opposition to a Pentagon policy that reimburses personnel who travel to end a pregnancy.

But some GOP senators have expressed concerns about the resolution itself, saying it would buck Senate traditions. Schumer said before the turkey day break he intends to put it on the floor “shortly” and reiterated it was a priority in his “Dear Colleague” over the weekend.

Urgent issues

Over in the House, Johnson has said that chamber intends to continue work on outstanding fiscal 2024 spending bills. One problem: He needs to pass them with only Republican votes, and the conference is so divided that he had to pull several appropriations measures before Thanksgiving and send members home earlier than planned. For the current week, no appropriations bills are on the House schedule, leaving the chamber less than two full weeks to pass any before its scheduled adjournment.

Lawmakers also have until Dec. 31 to reauthorize the FAA — but they must clear several hurdles, including senators finding common ground on a pilot training issue, before both chambers would then need to pass a compromise reauthorization measure. The alternative: Keep negotiating unresolved matters and punt, via an FAA authorization extension, which could ride on another year-end bill.

“Given all the issues this last year on near misses and increased air travel this Thanksgiving and upcoming Christmas holiday period,” Hoagland said, “this seems like one that ought to be able to make it across the finish line before the end of the year.”

Another federal program, this one more controversial, due for reauthorization is the intelligence-gathering initiative known colloquially as “Section 702.” There are various bills working through House panels that would revamp the surveillance program, which has swept up Americans’ communications even though it is focused on foreign actors. But, so far, no consensus on a path forward has emerged.

Congress bought itself some time on another big-ticket item, a new farm bill, when it passed the laddered CR. The 2018 farm bill, which expired on Sept. 30, was extended another year in the spending bill, averting some potentially jarring program expirations at the end of the year and buying negotiators some wiggle room.

Public weighs in

As Congress focuses on those issues, polling data suggests voters want Washington to focus more on other issues. Atop that list are still-high prices of groceries and gasoline — and the politically prickly matter of rising immigration across the U.S.-Mexico border.

“In the short term, the political preferences of working-class voters are likely to be shaped by urgent issues such as high prices and illegal immigration,” according to the Brookings Institution’s William Galston, a former Clinton White House aid.

“In the longer term, however, a party that combines moderation on cultural issues with support for government programs that would improve the prospects of upward mobility for the working class would likely improve its performance in this key part of the electorate,” he added.

Even if lawmakers, somehow, check off every item on their to-do list, it is unclear whether such a monumental feat would please voters.

Congress returns to its lowest approval rating of the year, 13 percent, according to a poll released by the Gallup organization on Oct. 23. That is down from a high mark of 21 percent at the start of the year. It also is the lowest mark since 2017.

“Americans already viewed Congress quite negatively before the recent turmoil over the speakership,” Gallup’s Jeffrey M. Jones wrote in a summary of the poll. “Still, that drama further eroded Americans’ image of the legislative branch, primarily among Democrats. Congress’ actions over the next few weeks will help determine if it can regain some of the public trust it has lost in the past month.”

Ellyn Ferguson, Jessie Hellmann, Laura Weiss, Caroline Coudriet, Valerie Yurk and Andrew Clevenger contributed to this report.

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