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Congress is facing a December time crunch. Here’s what to expect.

Congress is running out of time to avoid a shutdown and raise the debt ceiling.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, surrounded by reporters inside the Capitol building, points at one to allow a question.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer speaks to the press after a lunch meeting with Senate Democrats at the Capitol on November 16.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Ellen Ioanes covers breaking and general assignment news as the weekend reporter at Vox. She previously worked at Business Insider covering the military and global conflicts.

With the Thanksgiving holiday in the rearview mirror, Congress is once again facing a time crunch to accomplish a number of major legislative priorities before the end of the year.

After punting the decisions earlier in the year, lawmakers need to both fund the government past the current December 3 deadline and raise the debt ceiling before the US defaults on its debt.

Senate Democrats also hope to advance President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion reconciliation bill, the Build Back Better Act, after it passed the House in mid-November, and the chamber also needs to make headway on the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), an annual must-pass defense policy bill.

The NDAA, which is historically bipartisan, may be relatively smooth sailing — albeit time-consuming — after Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer agreed this month to decouple it from the US Innovation and Competition Act (USICA), but Build Back Better faces an uncertain fate at the hands of moderate Senate Democrats.

In its current form, the bill includes lower prescription drug prices, universal pre-kindergarten, an expanded child tax credit, and four weeks of paid family leave, but could still change substantially prior to any final passage.

Short-term extensions for government funding and the debt ceiling, meanwhile, received bipartisan support this fall, but it’s still unclear whether lawmakers can coalesce behind an omnibus spending bill before the December 3 deadline, and Republicans have already signaled they may not support another increase to the debt ceiling, despite the potentially severe consequences of a US default.

“Now it’s our turn and we’ve got to buckle down,” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin told NPR this month. “And we have several things that are critical: military authorization, debt ceiling, continuing resolution. It’s going to be a busy December, but we’ve got to get the job done.”

Here’s everything Congress must get done before December 25, why it’s so important — and why so much of it is still in limbo.

Congress must fund the government to avoid a shutdown

At the top of Congress’s to-do list is to make sure, one way or another, that the lights stay on past December 3. Congress passed a continuing resolution on September 30 to fund the government through that date and avoid a shutdown, but it’s set to expire on Friday, and it’s looking increasingly unlikely that lawmakers will successfully advance an omnibus spending bill before then.

A likely alternative, according to CQ Roll Call, is another CR, which could fund the government through February or March and give Congress more time to finalize its 2022 appropriations bill.

Lawmakers could also opt for a stopgap measure funding the government until just December 17, in the hope that the tight schedule will force Congress to come to an agreement about the full appropriations bill, or at least give them some time to make progress on it before passing another stopgap measure to fund the government into next year.

A complete omnibus bill includes a dozen smaller spending measures to fund various aspects of the federal government; currently, 10 of those component bills have passed the House, while the Senate has brought just three bills to committee and passed none.

Whatever path they take, Congress will have to get straight to work when members return from the Thanksgiving break; starting Monday, they only have five days to avert a shutdown.

Can Congress pay its debts?

Next on the docket, and no less important, is raising the debt ceiling. According to a November 16 letter from Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen to congressional leaders, the government could reach the debt ceiling by December 15, at which point, she wrote, “there are scenarios in which Treasury would be left with insufficient remaining resources to continue to finance the operations of the U.S. government beyond this date.”

In October, Congress voted to increase the debt limit by $480 billion, which gave the Treasury enough funds to keep the government solvent — for a while.

But now, with the December 15 deadline fast approaching, it’s unclear whether Republicans will play ball with Democrats to avoid potentially catastrophic consequences.

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed in September, Yellen warned of a dire situation should Congress fail to act and increase the debt limit.

“In a matter of days, millions of Americans could be strapped for cash,” she wrote. “We could see indefinite delays in critical payments. Nearly 50 million seniors could stop receiving Social Security checks for a time. Troops could go unpaid. Millions of families who rely on the monthly child tax credit could see delays. America, in short, would default on its obligations.”

The US has never defaulted on its debt, although it has come close, and economists say that to do so would have catastrophic consequences, including potentially reversing the progress of recovery from the pandemic, slashing millions of jobs, increasing borrowing costs for ordinary Americans, and throwing the global economy into turmoil.

Despite that, Republicans hope to force Democrats to raise the debt ceiling without their cooperation — “in order to simply make a point,” as Vox’s Li Zhou wrote back in October.

Democrats, on the other hand, have argued that Republicans ought to work with them to pass a suspension or increase, or simply get out of the way. One, because avoiding a gigantic economic collapse is in everyone’s interest, and the minority party hasn’t typically blocked action to this degree in the past. And two, because both Democrats and Republicans are responsible for the actual debt that this legislation would address.

According to the Hill, it’s possible Schumer and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell will once again reach a deal to raise or suspend the debt ceiling, despite opposition from members of McConnell’s conference.

That’s not a sure thing, however, and it’s not clear how Democrats intend to navigate the debt ceiling issue. One option, floated by Pelosi and previously backed by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), would be to use the reconciliation process. Reconciliation would allow Democrats to lift the debt ceiling without any Republican votes; however, Democrats would also have to put forward a specific figure to which they plan to raise the ceiling, which is a potentially unpopular solution before the midterm elections, and one which would require the input of Senate parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough, according to CQ Roll Call.

“We cannot let the full faith and credit of the United States lapse, and we are focusing on getting this done in a bipartisan way,” Schumer told reporters last Sunday.

Biden’s agenda hangs in the balance

Also on the agenda is the Build Back Better Act, which is once again in the hands of the Senate after passing the House on November 19. Although the flagship climate and social spending bill is less time-sensitive than the previous two priorities Congress is faced with, Democratic senators have said they hope to pass the bill before going on break for the holiday recess.

Though it included $3.5 trillion in spending when it was introduced earlier this year, the bill has been pared down to about $1.75 trillion by moderates in both chambers — and especially by Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), who retain outsized influence over the bill since the budget reconciliation process requires all 50 Democratic votes (and Vice President Kamala Harris to break the tie) to pass an evenly divided Senate. No Senate Republicans are expected to vote in favor of the bill.

Despite being scaled back, the version of the bill that passed the House includes a number of flagship items from the Biden agenda, such as provisions for universal pre-kindergarten, an extension of the child tax credit, $555 billion in climate spending, and a new corporate minimum tax rate.

More controversial among Democrats, the measure also includes a temporary increase to the amount of state and local taxes Americans can deduct from their federal tax filings (called the SALT deduction), though it’s not certain that will survive the Senate.

While it’s not essential that the bill pass before the holiday recess, it’s still a top priority for Democrats, for a number of reasons — both in order to cement Biden’s domestic policy legacy and, potentially, to help boost his sagging poll numbers as inflation raises prices on everything from groceries to fuel.

However, the bill isn’t likely to make it through the Senate without some changes.

Among those possible changes: While the House version includes $200 billion for paid family leave and a provision for Medicaid to cover hearing costs, Manchin has stood firmly against both proposals. The Senate parliamentarian also has final say on a number of elements in the bill that may not conform with the rules of reconciliation, including immigration policy, and any changes will have to go back to the House for final approval after passing the Senate.

The NDAA is coming down to the wire

The NDAA, an annual defense policy bill, has passed Congress every year for the past six decades, including over a veto from former President Donald Trump, which Congress overrode by a wide margin.

This year, the bill is facing a relatively straightforward path — there are no veto threats on the horizon, for one — but Congress still needs to get back on track after a snag regarding Schumer’s attempt to link the NDAA with a bill to counter China’s technological and defense gains.

That bill — the US Innovation and Competition Act, or USICA — passed the House earlier this year and would provide $250 billion in funding for research and development, as well as “to boost the U.S. semiconductor industry,” according to Politico.

Its inclusion with the NDAA proved controversial, however, and the two measures were unlinked earlier this month ahead of a successful procedural vote in the Senate to advance the NDAA process.

That vote ended several months of stalling after the Senate Armed Services Committee approved a version of the bill more than three months ago, and after the House passed its version in September.

But while the ball is now rolling on the NDAA, major policy debates remain before it reaches Biden’s desk: A number of proposed inclusions could have a big impact on US defense policy going forward.

Among those changes is a version of the Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act backed by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), which would take prosecution of military sex crimes out of the chain of command, and a provision that would include women in the draft for the first time.

All told, there are also more than 1,000 amendments filed, including one to repeal the 1991 Gulf War and 2002 Iraq War authorizations.

Although that measure has fairly broad support, McConnell warned that repealing the 2002 authorization would give the US less latitude to act in the Middle East.

“I expect a robust debate about that,” McConnell told Politico earlier this month.

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