With the Thanksgiving recess in the rearview mirror, lawmakers are back Washington for a busy lame-duck session before a new Congress takes over in January.
Democrats will control both chambers of Congress for just a few more weeks before ceding the House of Representatives back to Republicans. President Joe Biden's party will still control the Senate when the 118th Congress takes over in January, and a Dec. 6 runoff in Georgia will determine whether they have a 51-seat majority, or experience another two years of a 50-50 chamber.
Before the GOP can take over the House, lawmakers still have plenty of work ahead of them in the coming weeks — including addressing government funding, enacting Electoral Count Act reform and working to avert a looming rail strike that could devastate the economy.
On Tuesday, President Joe Biden hosted Congressional leaders at the White House to discuss legislative priorities through the end of the year.
"I asked for top leaders in Congress to come in and talk about what we're going to do between now and Christmas," Biden told reporters before the meeting. "There's a lot to do."
"We're going to work together to fund – I hope work together – to fund the government, COVID and the war in Ukraine, all controversial and consequential issues," the president continued, adding: "We're going to find other areas of common ground, I hope, because the American people want us to work together."
Speaking to reporters afterwards, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called the meeting "productive" and expressed optimism about getting a number of things done, including a bill to avert the rail strike and a measure to fund the government for a full year.
No small feat for a narrowly divided Congress — especially in its waning days — but lawmakers have defied these odds several times before in the last two years, and hope to do so one last time before January.
President Joe Biden said Tuesday that he was "confident" that a rail strike will be avoided, one day after calling on Congress to pass legislation to intervene before next month’s deadline in the stalled contract talks.
Ahead of his meeting with Congressional leaders, Biden said that resolving the dispute was essential, and that Congress "has to act to prevent" a strike.
"It's not an easy call, but I think we have to do it," Biden said, adding: "The economy is at risk."
Following the meeting, Majority Leader Schumer told reporters that all four Congressional leaders agreed to work to resolve the rail strike as soon as possible.
The president said in a statement on Monday that a tentative agreement approved in September provided a pay raise for workers, health care benefits and a better leave policy.
"On the day that it was announced, labor leaders, business leaders, and elected officials all hailed it as a fair resolution of the dispute between the hard-working men and women of the rail freight unions and the companies in that industry," Biden wrote.
But talks have since stalled. Four rail unions are back at the table after rejecting their deals with the railroads, trying to work out new agreements before the Dec. 9 deadline. Eight other rail unions have ratified deals which include 24% raises and $5,000 in bonuses.
Labor leaders have asked Congress to step in. Lawmakers have the power to impose contract terms on the workers, but it’s not clear what they might include if they do that. They could also force the negotiations to continue into the new year.
"Let me be clear: a rail shutdown would devastate our economy,” Biden said in a statement. "Without freight rail, many U.S. industries would shut down."
Biden said that according to his economic advisers, as many as 765,000 Americans could find themselves out of work in the first two weeks alone, and a strike could have wide-ranging disruptions on life across the country, impacting everything from feed for livestock to chemicals to ensure clean drinking water.
"As a proud pro-labor President, I am reluctant to override the ratification procedures and the views of those who voted against the agreement," Biden's statement continued. "But in this case – where the economic impact of a shutdown would hurt millions of other working people and families – I believe Congress must use its powers to adopt this deal."
Soon after, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., released her own statement saying the House will "take up a bill adopting the Tentative Agreement – with no poison pills or changes to the negotiated terms – and send it to the Senate" at some point this week.
"It is my hope that this necessary, strike-averting legislation will earn a strongly bipartisan vote, giving America’s families confidence in our commitment to protecting their financial futures," Pelosi continued, adding that Democrats "are continuing to fight for more of railroad workers’ priorities, including paid sick leave."
Pelosi said Tuesday after the meeting at the White House that the House will put a bill on the floor Wednesday morning "that accepts the the original agreement plus the additional benefits that were gained in further discussion."
"It's not everything I would like to see," Pelosi admitted. "I think that we should have paid sick leave ... every developed country in the world has it, we don't. But nonetheless, we we have an improved situation."
"I don't like going against the ability of of unions to strike," she added. "But weighing the equities, we must avoid a strike. Jobs will be lost, even union jobs will be lost. Water will not be a safe. Product will not be going to market. We could lose 750,000 jobs, some of them union jobs, that must be avoided."
Schumer said that he and Leader McConnell will work on the bill as soon as possible, ahead of the Dec. 8 strike deadline.
Earlier Monday, a coalition of more than 400 business groups sent a letter to Congressional leaders urging them to step into the stalled talks because of fears about the devastating potential impact of a strike that could force many businesses to shut down if they can't get the rail deliveries they need. Commuter railroads and Amtrak would also be affected in a strike because many of them use tracks owned by the freight railroads.
Aside from averting the rail strike, the most imminent priority for lawmakers to pass a bill that will keep the government running past Dec. 16.
In a statement following his meeting with Congressional leaders, the White House said Biden and the group discussed "how to keep the government funded, continue giving the American people the resources they need to keep fighting COVID-19 with the best tools available, and continue furthering our national security interests by standing with the people of Ukraine against Russia’s illegal invasion."
Lawmakers passed a short-term funding measure in September that kicked the can down the road until after the midterms.
Lawmakers can either come together on an omnibus spending agreement for the next fiscal year, or pass yet another short-term measure, known as a continuing resolution, which will set up yet another funding battle down the road.
Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, an outgoing Republican lawmaker on the key Senate Appropriations Committee, expressed optimism in an interview Tuesday that a larger omnibus spending measure can come together.
"Frankly it should," Blunt told Punchbowl News in a virtual conversation on Tuesday, lamenting the fact that large matters have been left to the end of the year: "In the 26 years I've been in the Congress, the most unfortunate change in the way we do business is now coming to the end of every year with one big bill."
After meeting with President Biden on Tuesday, Pelosi and Schumer both expressed optimism about getting a long-term budget bill done. Schumer said that there was "goodwill in the room and a desire to come together and and solve this problem," agreeing with Blunt's point that a short-term bill would harm the country domestically and from a military standpoint.
"We all agreed that it should be done this year," Schumer said. "We all agreed we had to work together and everybody had to give a little bit."
Pelosi acknowledged that "we may have to have a year-long CR," which they agreed was not the preference and is not an ideal solution.
"But nonetheless, we have to have a bipartisan agreement as to what the top-line is, defense, domestic discretionary, non-defense spending," Pelosi said, adding: "That is something that we would like to get to work on right away. Our appropriators have been working on it, now we're going to take it to the next step as soon as possible."
Blunt warned that a short-term measure would be detrimental to national defense.
“The continuation of this year’s spending, for everybody who believes that the principal role of the federal government is to defend the country, wouldn't want to be defending the country with last years’ spending numbers," the retiring Missouri Republican added.
Also potentially on the docket, but somewhat less urgent, is action to address the debt limit. Lawmakers took action late last year to raise the debt limit, increasing the nation's borrowing limit while ensuring that the country does not default on its obligations.
It's not clear when the country will approach the debt ceiling, but it's estimated to be at some point next year. But with the increasing likelihood of different parties controlling the House and Senate next year, negotiatiors may want to use the lame duck session as an opportunity to agree on a longer-term spending bill and address the debt limit.
A number of lawmakers have called for the abolition of the debt limit, with House Democrats sending a letter asking Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Schumer to "permanently undo the debt limit" in the lame duck session. President Biden has expressed opposition to that, calling it "irresponsible," despite the fact that his own Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said last year that "it’s become increasingly damaging to America to have a debt ceiling."
Blunt told Punchbowl News Tuesday that lawmakers will probably take up the debt limit next year.
“If I had to guess, I'd guess that the debt ceiling is something they're going to have to deal with next year,“ he said. “It’s easier to deal with the debt ceiling than it is an actual impending government shutdown in my view.”
Speaker Pelosi told reporters after the White House meeting that the debt limit did not come up, signaling that the matter will be addressed next year.
Also on lawmakers' plates is the National Defense Authorization Act, the annual defense spending bill that has passed Congress every year for the last six decades. The bill typically enjoys widespread support from both parties, but it's yet other massive spending bill that lawmakers will rush to address before the year comes to an end.
Lawmakers are set to take up reforms to the Electoral Count Act of 1887, an arcane law that attempts to clarify how elections are administered, which former President Donald Trump and his allies sought to exploit in an attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers over the summer introduced legislation which would clarify ambiguous language in the law, establish the vice president's largely ceremonial role in vote counting, raise the threshold for objections to election results and promote the orderly transfer of power.
It would be the first major electoral reform since the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, which saw a mob of Trump supporters storm the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to disrupt the certification of Joe Biden's victory.
The Electoral Count Reform Act would, importantly, clarify that the role of the vice president in the electoral count is “solely ministerial” and clarifies that they don’t “have any power to solely determine, accept, reject, or otherwise adjudicate disputes over electors.”
The bill would also dramatically raise the threshold for the number of members of Congress needed to object to a state’s election results — to at least one-fifth of members of both the House and Senate — in order to “reduce the likelihood of frivolous objections by ensuring that objections are broadly supported.” Currently, it just takes one member of each chamber to object to a state’s slate of electors.
The measure would also specify that a state can only appoint one slate of electors that must be submitted by the state’s governor, or another official specified in the state’s laws or constitution. It would also provide for expedited judicial review process for raising questions for a state’s elections and protects each state’s popular vote by striking down a provision of an 1845 law that could allow state legislatures to declare a “failed election” and override the vote.
The Presidential Transition Improvement Act would clarify when presidential candidates can obtain transition resources when an election is contested.
The bill cleared a major procedural hurdle in September when it easily passed the Senate rules committee, setting it up for a vote in the Senate. The reforms carry the backing of Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., signaling that it will have enough support to pass the chamber.
"I do think it needs to get done before the end of the year," Missouri Sen. Blunt told Punchbowl News on Tuesday. "The long process did produce a pretty dramatic bipartisan consensus on the things that need to be done to make that 1888 law work better."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.