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What Congress needs to get done before 2021 comes to an end

Congress is scheduled to go back on recess on December 10.

Utah Sen. Mike Lee and Sen. Amy Klobuchar shown during a September 21 hearing.
Utah Sen. Mike Lee and Sen. Amy Klobuchar shown during a September 21 hearing.
Ting Shen/Pool via REUTERS

There are 10 working days between Congress’ just-concluded Thanksgiving recess and winter recess. In that short window, lawmakers are now attempting to follow through with all their promises made throughout the year. Democrats in particular have a long list of priorities they want to accomplish. With an election year on the horizon it’s in their best interest to get things done as quickly as possible.

For now, the House and the Senate are only scheduled to be in session through December 10 before packing it up for the rest of the year. But, like many congressional deadlines, the timeline is likely to slip later into the month. Here’s Congress’ list of priorities to finish up before their winter break.

Funding the government and raising the debt ceiling

The most immediate issue Congress faces is avoiding a government shutdown at the end of the week. The government is set to run out of funding on December 3. A lapse in government funding can lead to furloughs of federal employees and temporarily shutting down some “non-essential” government services.

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If this seems like déja vù, that might be because Congress faced a nearly identical scenario in October of this year. In October, lawmakers passed a continuing resolution, which keeps normal government functions going until a later date without confirming a new budget for the year ahead. The later date that Congress decided on is this Friday.

Members of congressional leadership reached an agreement early Thursday on a new continuing resolution to keep the government running until February 18. The House is expected to take up the measure later in the day. However, a  temporary shutdown is still possible due to a few Senate Republicans, who are now threatening to force a government shutdown by objecting to Democrats’ stopgap measure over the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate on the private sector.

“I’m sure we would all like to simplify the process for resolving the [continuing resolution], but I can’t facilitate that without addressing the vaccine mandates,” said Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah in a statement. “Given that federal courts across the country have raised serious issues with these mandates, it’s not unreasonable for my Democratic colleagues to delay enforcement of the mandates for at least the length of the continuing resolution.”

As an added “bonus” to the funding situation, Congress is also running out of time before raising the debt ceiling becomes necessary to pay the government’s bills. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen told congressional leaders last month that she has a “high degree of confidence” that the federal government has sufficient borrowing power through Dec. 15. The U.S. narrowly avoided defaulting on its loans in October after Republicans refused to vote for a debt limit increase, and Democrats passed a short-term extension instead.

Passing the Build Back Better Act

After passing the Build Back Better Act in the House in November, Democrats don’t expect the Senate to take up the social spending package until the second week of December at the earliest. Democrats plan to pass the bill through a process called reconciliation, which means it cannot be filibustered and just needs a majority vote to pass. There are 50 Democrats in the Senate, plus Vice President Kamala Harris as a tiebreaker vote.

Still, the bill is likely to face some significant changes, all in an effort to please mostly one lawmaker: West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, the main Democratic holdout on the bill. Manchin has raised objections to a number of provisions in the $1.7 trillion package passed by the House, including paid family leave.

Beyond Manchin’s issues with the bill, progressive senators including Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders have expressed disappointment over the House bill’s Medicare expansion provisions. Sanders says they don’t do enough.

Progressive Caucus Whip and Fifth District Rep. Ilhan Omar has been an emphatic supporter of the bill since its inception, as it includes many priorities that she says will help constituents in her district.

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“I’m thrilled the House was able to pass the Build Back Better Act with many Progressive Caucus priorities, including paid leave, affordable childcare, lower prescription drug costs, immigration reform and nutrition assistance for kids,” Omar said. “I hope we can build on the progress of this historic legislation and continue to enact transformative investments to show the people that the government has their backs. Now, we need a vote in the Senate to deliver all these critical investments to Minnesotans and the American people as quickly as possible.”

As it’s currently written, the Build Back Better Act would create a tiered, income-based system that would subsidize child care costs based on family income, with some families paying nothing and no families paying over seven percent of their yearly income in child care costs. It would also set up universal Pre-K, create initiatives to combat climate change and set aside money for affordable housing.

Democrats have set Christmas as their own internal deadline for passing the Build Back Better Act, which has been whittled down from an early $3.5 trillion price tag to a more modest $2 trillion.

On ABC’s “This Week” Sunday, Sen. Amy Klobuchar spoke about the Build Back Better Act, saying it will increase access to child and elder care and address the labor shortages that are being experienced across the country.

“We need people, we need kids to go into jobs that we have shortages,” Klobuchar said. “We don’t have a shortage of sports marketing degrees. We have a shortage of health care workers. We have a shortage of plumbers, electricians, construction workers. This bill puts us on the right path.”

Klobuchar also said that she is confident that the social spending bill will be finished before Christmas. Minnesota’s two senators, Klobuchar and Sen. Tina Smith, are almost guaranteed “yes” votes, although Smith has said that if the Senate negotiations result in striking her climate provision from the bill, it could cost her vote.

Defense authorization bill

For going on 60 years, Congress has approved the annual defense policy bill. It’s just one of those things that gets done at the end of the year no matter what. But it can take months to negotiate a final deal between the House and the Senate, which, as usual, are currently working on different versions of the bill.

This year’s bill includes reforms to the system that prosecutes allegations of sexual assault in the military, increased military support for Ukraine and salary raises for service members of the armed forces.

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Fourth District Rep. Betty McCollum chairs the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, which is responsible for approving the annual defense budget. In a statement released with the passage of the bill, she called it a “responsible funding level for the Department of Defense that maintains a strong national security posture today, while making important investments in modernization that will make us even stronger in the years to come.” In total, the House version of the bill will provide nearly $706 billion in 2022, a 1.4 percent increase from 2021.

“Whether in cyber, or advanced manufacturing, or clean energy or climate change – this bill will support a high-tech, high skilled workforce of the future. To be clear: this bill is about people, it is about quality of life, it is about American jobs, and it is about America’s leadership role in the world,” McCollum said.

The House approved its version of the defense authorization bill earlier this year, and the Senate is expected to vote this week on its version.

Correction: This article has been corrected to accurately state Rep. Ilhan Omar’s role in the Congressional Progressive Caucus. She is the whip.