Welcome to the Senate’s year-end to-do list: ‘It’s going to be a train wreck’

By | November 9, 2021

As Mark Warner considers the Senate work left undone as the holiday season dawns, he’s weighing a couple of potentially ugly scenarios.

“Having only other senators to kiss on New Year’s Eve?” the Virginia Democrat deadpanned about the chamber’s upcoming December pile-up. “The only thing that might be worse would be opening each other’s stockings on Christmas Eve.”

The Senate is only scheduled to be in three weeks for the rest of 2021, with a recess set to start Dec. 10. There’s almost no chance that schedule holds at this point, with the Democratic majority facing a to-do list more daunting than a Black Friday sales rush. Congress has to fund the government past Dec. 3, pass a massive defense policy bill, finish out a $1.75 trillion party-line social spending bill and potentially maneuver around a U.S. credit default.

Each of those four bills could take several days of Senate floor time, not to mention the myriad negotiations still left to hash out Biden’s GOP-free domestic agenda with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who wants to slow things down. Already some senators are anticipating a short-term government funding patch for a few weeks, potentially right up until Christmas. And in a worst-case scenario, the debt limit would need to be raised right around that same time — something Republicans say they won’t help with.

“It’s going to be a train wreck,” surmised Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the minority whip.

Of course, last year’s Republican Senate was barely better — passing a spending deal in late December and having to work on New Year’s Day 2021 to finish the defense authorization bill. But the better parallel to this year’s coal-lumped holiday season might be 2009, when then-Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) leveraged the holidays to pass the Affordable Care Act on Christmas Eve. That included holding a Saturday session during a driving snowstorm, the type of work that focuses lawmakers on getting out of Washington as soon as possible.

While Democrats still sound bullish on closing out their social safety net and climate measure by Thanksgiving, 2022 may be the real hard deadline. That’s when Democrats’ expanded child tax credit expires anyway — and when lawmakers will really, truly be desperate to get home after months of protracted negotiations.

“We’ll finish most of our work by December 31,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.).

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer was publicly eyeing Monday as the date his chamber would take up the social spending bill. But that timeline is no longer feasible, after House Democrats pushed their vote on the long-planned bill until that week, amid demands from moderates for a score from the Congressional Budget Office.

Prior to leaving for this week’s recess, senators acknowledged it’s possible they consider the defense policy bill before the social spending bill instead, given some of the outstanding hiccups they face finishing out Biden’s agenda.

Already, the Senate is delaying the defense bill much later than usual. It’s one of the few pieces of legislation that regularly passes Congress every year, usually with a strong bipartisan vote. And some senators have relayed their concerns about the delay to Schumer.

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said that the defense bill would come “up the first day we’re back” next week, “which is good.”

“We will go to the reconciliation bill sometime” after that, Tester added. “But I think it’s going to take a while.”

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) surmised that “if something opens up … you could see Schumer make a smart decision to call up the [defense policy bill], give it ten days on the floor, keep everybody moving it along, get it passed. And when it’s done: Boom, go to” the social spending plan.

Democrats are still confident about checking off everything on their list, even if it requires late nights, weekends and possible holiday work. But there could still be some casualties; the most likely one is funding the government through regular order.

One idea under consideration to wind up the year is folding a stalled U.S.-China competitiveness bill, which focuses on reviving the domestic computer chip manufacturing industry, into the defense policy bill. That competitiveness legislation passed the Senate earlier this year but has stalled in the House — putting it in the defense bill would ensure it gets done, and quickly.

“It’s all achievable,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). “We have a reasonable pathway to enact Build Back Better. We will do the defense bill. I think we will enact at least part of or most of [the competitiveness bill] in the defense bill. And then the open question is [appropriations].”

It takes 60 votes to fund the government, and Democrats and Republicans are nowhere near a deal on filling out that spending through Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year. That means Congress is almost certainly in for a stopgap, as the two parties focus on the defense bill and Democrats try to pull off passing their $1.75 trillion investment in climate action, universal pre-K, child care and higher taxes on the wealthy and corporations.

“We’re in an impasse right now,” said Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), his party’s top member on the Appropriations Committee. “Dec. 3 is coming, I think we’ll either do a short-term [bill] maybe up to Christmas and try to get us there and get attention. Or we will kick it on ‘til February.”

With such a full plate, Democrats aren’t even talking yet about how they’ll address the debt limit. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is insisting that Democrats will need to raise the debt ceiling along party lines this time, after he assented to a short-term patch. That means using the so-called reconciliation process to evade a GOP filibuster.

But Schumer so far is giving no indication that he plans to change course from his repeated entreaties for Republicans to supply the 10 votes needed to move forward. And McConnell ended up providing 11 GOP votes last month amid similar dynamics.

The Treasury Department says it can cover the country’s balance sheet through at least Dec. 3, the same day the government runs out of funding. But the Bipartisan Policy Center, which forecasts the debt limit’s brink, predicts the date could instead range from mid-December to mid-February, giving lawmakers more time.

The December time crunch might as well be a holiday tradition at this point. Last year, the Senate left right before Christmas Eve, after funding the government and passing a $900 billion coronavirus relief bill. And even after leaving Washington, then-President Donald Trump kept Congress in suspense over whether he would sign that bill. He did eventually, but also vetoed the defense policy bill, prompting the rare New Year’s Day session.

And three years ago, the government partially shut down on Dec. 22, triggering the longest government shutdown in history. Those recent events have senators preparing for flexible travel schedules, as they enter yet another jam-packed winter that’s starting to feel fairly routine in the Capitol these days.

“I’m making no non-refundable travel plans,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.).