Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are returning to work after the Thanksgiving holiday faced with a logjam of make-or-break votes that will provide another crucial test of Joe Biden’s political power in the run-up to Christmas.
After the president signed a $1.2tn bipartisan infrastructure bill into law earlier in the month, Chuck Schumer, Democratic Senate majority leader, has vowed to pass the second flagship piece of Biden’s legislative agenda — a $1.75tn investment in America’s social safety net — by December 25, a significant challenge given the long list of issues still dividing his party.
At the same time, the clock is ticking for Democrats to strike several deals with Republicans to avert a federal government shutdown, avoid a default and keep funding the US military — all before the end of the year.
Amy Klobuchar, the Democratic senator from Minnesota, likened the impending “drama” to a “mini-series”, but insisted Democrats could get through their checklist in the coming weeks.
“A little less talk and a lot more action . . . that’s what we’ll need in this next month,” Klobuchar told ABC News on Sunday.
The first big deadline will come this Friday, when lawmakers in both chambers of Congress will need to agree to continue funding the government or risk a shutdown that would leave hundreds of thousands of federal employees out of work.
Democrats have indicated they intend to introduce a “continuing resolution”, or stop-gap measure, as soon as Tuesday that would fund the government for several more weeks, kicking the can down the road to later this month or possibly next year.
The other significant funding crunch for lawmakers comes in the form of the National Defense Authorization Act, an annual bill to fund the US military that is often the subject of political wrangling because lawmakers frequently try to tack unrelated amendments on to it.
Schumer on Monday night sought to advance the legislation, but his efforts were stopped by Republicans who said more debate was needed.
“Nothing less than the safety of the American people is at stake,” said Mitch McConnell, Republican Senate minority leader. “This is more important than political timetables for partisan wish lists.”
The budget battles are taking place under the shadow of an even larger economic threat: the fact that the US government is on a collision course to breach its debt limit as soon as next month.
“The debt ceiling is an X-factor that could muddy the entire December agenda,” said Ben Koltun, director of research at Beacon Policy Advisors.
Janet Yellen, US Treasury secretary, has pled for Congress to act swiftly to raise the debt ceiling to avoid a financial catastrophe, warning the government risks confronting “insufficient remaining resources” after December 15.
Lawmakers have for months been engaged in a game of chicken over the borrowing limit, with Republicans insisting that Democrats “go it alone” to raise the debt ceiling using a complex legislative procedure called reconciliation, and the president’s party saying they need GOP support to proceed.
Independent analysts have suggested the government may have several more weeks, or even a month beyond government projections before it risks default.
But the looming risk already has investors on edge, with recent short-term US debt auctions suggesting that some market participants are seeking to limit their exposure to Treasury bills that mature around the time congressional negotiations could be entering crunch time.
Even if a debt ceiling deal can be reached, that still leaves Biden’s Build Back Better bill, a sweeping $1.75tn package to invest in early childhood education, public healthcare and climate policies, to be completed in the coming weeks.
Schumer on Monday reiterated his intention to pass the bill, which cleared the House earlier this month, by Christmas, even as Joe Manchin, Democratic senator from West Virginia, and others raised alarm bells.
All 50 Democratic senators — including Manchin and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema — will need to sign on to the legislation if it is to become law.
Manchin on Monday refused to commit to the Christmas timeline, telling reporters when asked whether the bill should be considered in January: “We will wait to see what we have.”
However Jen Psaki, White House press secretary, struck an optimistic note, telling reporters that senior White House officials had been “in close touch” with lawmakers.
“I can assure you we are moving forward full speed to get this done and we expect action on it in the coming weeks,” she added.