Congress braces for chaotic December

Congress is barreling toward a chaotic end-of-the-year scramble as lawmakers return for the final work weeks of 2019.

Lawmakers have up to 15 days in session to wrap up legislative items like funding the government beyond Dec. 20, while also juggling the House impeachment inquiry that has sucked up most of the political oxygen in Washington.

The House and Senate are currently scheduled to leave town by Dec. 13. But members are already planning to stick around until late December as they try to finish their legislative work and prepare for the next phase of impeachment.

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Here are five things to watch.


Impeachment

House Democrats are charging forward with the next stage of their impeachment inquiry into whether President Trump tied Ukraine aid to Kyiv opening an investigation into former Vice President Biden and his son, Hunter Biden.

After two weeks of public hearings, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) is planning to send his panel’s report on the investigation to the House Judiciary Committee, which is poised to take over the next phase of the inquiry.

Schiff, in a “Dear Colleague” letter, said the report would include a summary of evidence found and “catalog the instances of non-compliance with lawful subpoenas.” Intelligence Committee members are expected to be able to review the report on Monday evening, followed by a committee vote on Tuesday on adopting the report.

House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) said his committee will hold its first public impeachment hearing on Wednesday. Some members of the panel have floated using open hearings to try to educate the public on the legal basis for impeachment.

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The Judiciary Committee will ultimately be responsible for drafting any articles of impeachment against Trump, and then voting to send them to the House floor. That includes deciding how broad any articles should be and if they should be limited to Trump’s actions toward Ukraine.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) hasn’t committed publicly to a timeline for when the House would vote on articles of impeachment. But Democrats are eyeing such a vote by Christmas, a move that would pave the way for a Senate trial to start in early January.


Government funding

Lawmakers have until Dec. 20 to prevent a shutdown just days before Christmas, in what would amount to a repeat of the record-long partial government closure that started on Dec. 22, 2018.

In a boost to the chances of avoiding a shutdown, House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) agreed to top-line numbers for each of the 12 fiscal 2020 spending bills.

But major hurdles remain as lawmakers and staff try to draft the 12 bills and navigate looming fights on border and abortion-related provisions.

The House, for example, included no new funding for border barriers in its spending measures, while the Senate included $5 billion in its Department of Homeland Security bill.

“Individual funding items are being left to the subcommittees in keeping with long-standing committee practice,” a source familiar with the talks said about the border wall.

To avoid a shutdown, lawmakers will either need to pass the 12 spending bills or another continuing resolution (CR). Shelby said that they “could” get all the bills done “if we work together,” but caveated that could be “difficult.”

Another potential option would be to pass some of the spending bills and a CR for the others.

“Maybe pass the easy ones out and then CR the rest,” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), a member of leadership and the Senate Appropriations Committee, said when asked about expectations for December.

Defense authorization

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Congress has passed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for the past 58 years.

But the mammoth defense bill, which lays out policy and authorizes spending for the Pentagon, has been beset this year by a sluggish pace and multiple fights that have threatened to break the bill’s annual streak.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) signaled before the Thanksgiving recess that they believed they were on the cusp of wrapping up negotiations and agreeing to a final bill before lawmakers left town for the holiday.

But that timeframe came and went without an announcement from committee leaders—known as the big four—that they had signed off on a conference report detailing the final deal on the NDAA. Instead, negotiators remained entangled in disagreements over Trump’s border wall, Space Force and cancer-linked “forever chemicals” known as PFAS.

“They are insisting on two very difficult political asks on the wall and Space Force and giving us nothing in return. And that’s a problem,” Smith told reporters before the break.

Trade deal

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The window for reaching a deal this year on Trump’s trade agreement with Canada and Mexico is rapidly coming to a close.

House Democrats have said they are down to a final few issues as they negotiate with the administration on the trade deal known as USMCA. Pelosi added over the Thanksgiving recess that they were “within range” of an agreement.

“Now, we need to see our progress in writing from the Trade Representative for final review,” Pelosi said in a statement.

The Trump administration and top Republicans have stepped up their public criticism of Pelosi as it becomes increasingly likely that the trade agreement will not see movement on Capitol Hill by the end of December. Once the implementation legislation is introduced, the House has to vote on it within 60 session days, though lawmakers think they could move faster if there’s a bipartisan deal.

Pelosi has opened the door to the negotiations dragging into 2020. Supporters worry that pushing it past December makes it more likely the trade deal will get derailed by presidential campaign politics and stuck permanently in legislative purgatory.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) recently lashed out at Pelosi in a tweet, saying the House Democratic leader was to blame for USMCA being “stalled.”

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“Lots of talk, but no action for American workers,” he added.

VAWA

Top negotiators in the Senate say they want to get a deal on the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) by the end of the year.

Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) have introduced competing versions of legislation to reauthorize VAWA after their talks aimed at finding a bipartisan bill unraveled.

The House-passed bill, which is the legislation that Feinstein reintroduced in the Senate, has drawn opposition from the National Rifle Association and Republicans because of a provision that eliminated the so-called boyfriend loophole by expanding a current ban on firearm purchases for spouses or formerly married partners convicted of abuse or under a restraining order to include dating partners who were never legally married.

LGBT and tribal sovereignty provisions as also viewed as two other sticking points.

Ernst and Feinstein sparred over the bill shortly before the recess, but publicly pledged to try to find a deal by the end of December.

“I think that by the end of the year, we should find something that will work to reauthorize this very, very important piece of legislation,” Ernst said.

VAWA, which provides funding and grants for domestic abuse programs, lapsed in February after it was left out of a funding bill that ended the partial government shutdown.

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Written by Alan Smith

Alan Smith

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