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Congress’s packed to-do list, briefly explained

Lawmakers are eyeing pandemic aid, Ukraine funding, and slimmed-down Build Back Better measures.

US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer speaks to the media following the confirmation of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson as the first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court, at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on April 7. 
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Congress is back from recess this week, and it’s facing a packed to-do list.

There’s a lot that lawmakers hope to accomplish before January, when Democrats could lose their House and Senate majorities and many policies could soon be off the table. Key priorities on the docket include advancing much-needed pandemic aid, approving legislation to strengthen the US supply chain, and passing a diluted version of Build Back Better.

“This year really means five remaining months, one of which is August, [when] very little gets done,” White House chief of staff Ron Klain said in a recent interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd. “And so we really have to move the key pieces of legislation left [in] the House and Senate with tempo.”

Here are some of the bills lawmakers are eyeing as they get back in session — and how likely they are to pass.

Pandemic aid

What it is: For weeks, the White House has been urging Congress to pass more pandemic funding to help purchase treatments, tests, and vaccines. Lawmakers, however, have struggled to approve this aid due to disagreements about how it should be paid for and a Republican push to add amendments addressing some of their legislative priorities.

Where it stands: Right before the recess, Democrats and Republicans reached an agreement in the Senate on $10 billion in Covid-19 relief, much less than the $22.5 billion the White House initially requested. This would be paid for using unspent funds that different agencies received as part of last year’s American Rescue Plan.

Senate Republicans, however, refused to move forward with a vote on the aid unless lawmakers considered an amendment preserving Title 42, a Trump-era immigration policy that enables the US government to block noncitizens from entering the country due to public health concerns. Many public health officials have long argued Title 42 is ineffective at stopping the spread of Covid-19, and President Joe Biden is now rolling that policy back.

Lawmakers have yet to resolve their disagreement over the path forward.

“It is the height of hypocrisy to end this important public health tool at the very same moment Democrats are seeking billions more for Covid,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) told Vox in a statement about Title 42. “The Biden administration can’t have it both ways and Republicans will fight to keep Title 42 safeguards in place before any additional taxpayer money is considered.”

Several House Democrats had also expressed concerns about the deal because it did not include funding for global vaccine distribution.

“Until Senate Republicans get their act together, this is all very fluid,” Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL) told Vox in a statement. “There’s no doubt that we need this domestic funding right now, but I and many of my colleagues need firm assurances from the White House that we will get robust global Covid funding to accompany the next Ukrainian aid package.”

Both pandemic relief and Ukraine aid could ultimately be bundled into one bill. Previously, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer had floated the option as a way to address the omission of global aid, though other provisions could be added, too.

“It is my intention for the Senate to consider a bipartisan international appropriations package that could include additional aid for Ukraine as well as funding to address Covid-19 and food insecurity globally,” Schumer said in an April statement.

What are the prospects it will pass? Approving more pandemic aid is a major priority for Congress since the US could run out of money for therapies and booster shots by late May. Last weekend, Ashish Jha, the head of the White House’s Covid-19 response effort, pressed lawmakers to vote on the issue once they were back in session.

Its prospects for passing are still uncertain, however. Democratic leaders still have to confront the ongoing impasse over Title 42, a difficult task given moderates in their own party don’t support rescinding it, either. It’s an issue that’s likely to affect the bill even if it’s packaged with Ukraine aid.

Ukraine aid

What it is: Last week, the White House announced that it would request more aid for Ukraine as Russia’s military invasion continues.

“I’m going to be sending to Congress a supplemental budget request to keep weapons and ammunition flowing without interruption to brave Ukrainian fighters and to continue to deliver economic assistance to the Ukrainian people,” Biden said in remarks on Thursday. “My hope is, and my expectation is, that Congress will move and act quickly.”

Previously, Congress had approved $13.6 billion in military and humanitarian aid, as well as economic sanctions aimed at Russian trade.

Where it stands: Biden has yet to specify how much aid he’s looking for Congress to approve, though he has called for lawmakers to consider it swiftly when he does.

What are the prospects it could pass? So far, support for Ukraine has been notably bipartisan. Previously, humanitarian aid and economic sanctions passed with Republican support. If this trend continues, it’s likely this package could do the same.

Democratic leaders have also signaled that they may try to combine this funding with pandemic aid. If they do, it could wind up making this legislation more contentious for Republicans, who’ve been eager to help Ukraine but less interested in approving more Covid-19 funding.

“If that [Covid-19 aid] discussion is going to take a matter of weeks, we have to make a decision on Ukrainian support in a matter of hours or days,” Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) told Politico.

US Innovation and Competition Act

What it is: This legislation would invest in scientific research, fund the development of new technologies, and bolster US production of semiconductors in an attempt to make the country more competitive on the global stage.

Where it stands: The Senate and the House have both passed their own versions of the bill, which have been dubbed the Innovation and Competition Act, and the America Competes Act, respectively.

Lawmakers have since started what’s known as a conference committee in order to reconcile the differences between the two bills. The Senate still needs to hold a vote officially approving the committee, but talks are already beginning on different subjects.

Currently, there are significant differences between the two bills on issues like trade, how funding to the National Science Foundation will be applied, and foreign policies related to the Chinese government.

“I’m spending a lot of time working to get agreement on the trade title,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), a member of the conference committee, said in a statement. “Democrats are largely aligned on our goals, but there are some big differences.”

What are the prospects it will pass? Since the House and Senate have already approved their takes on this legislation, it’s evident that this is an important priority for lawmakers in both chambers.

As a Democratic House aide told Vox, there’s a sense that this could be the last large bill this Congress passes, and as a result, lawmakers from both parties will attempt to add unrelated measures to the package. That makes whether they will be able to work through their disagreements, however, an open question.

House resolution enabling staffers to unionize

What it is: Staffers in Congress currently have the right to unionize, but they lack the protections to do so — meaning they could be fired and blacklisted if they try. The House and Senate respectively need to pass resolutions that guarantee staffers these protections before they can start organizing.

Where it stands: Rep. Andy Levin (D-MI) first introduced a resolution in the House in February and needs to fix a drafting error in it before it can move forward, according to two Democratic aides. Union organizers argue that the fix is straightforward and shouldn’t delay a floor vote.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) is also expected to introduce a similar resolution in the Senate, though it’s less likely to pass there since 10 Republicans would have to sign on. House offices, however, would be able to begin unionizing even if the Senate does not.

What are the prospects it will pass? House leaders had previously expressed strong support for staffers’ ability to unionize, and 165 Democrats have already signed on as co-sponsors to Levin’s resolution.

The question now centers on if 50 or so other Democrats will vote in favor of the resolution and whether House leadership will actually bring it to the floor.

“All of leadership, at this point, has expressed support, has paid lip service,” an organizer with the Congressional Workers Union (CWU) previously told Vox. “And then they haven’t brought it to the floor.”

A new version of the bill formerly known as Build Back Better

What it is: Democrats are still scrambling to pass a version of Build Back Better, their social spending and climate legislation. While Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), a pivotal Democratic holdout, announced that he couldn’t vote for the prior iteration of the bill, he has left the door open for a narrower measure.

Where it stands: There hasn’t been much movement on what a specific proposal could include.

Most recently, Manchin has said he’d consider legislation that invests in climate provisions and reduces prescription drug prices, as long as half the revenue from the bill is used to pay down the deficit.

He has yet to offer a concrete commitment to any bill, though, meaning any path forward is still uncertain.

What are the prospects it will pass? Democrats are hoping they could rally around some form of the legislation ahead of the midterms, though their chances of doing so are looking increasingly slim.

Because the bill is so dependent on Manchin’s support, it’s hard to imagine any policy coming to fruition until he explicitly and publicly backs it.

Insulin pricing legislation

What it is: If Democrats are unable to pass a version of the Build Back Better legislation, they could turn to more modest bills that address prescription drug prices. One of these measures aims to reduce the out-of-pocket cost of insulin.

Where it stands: The House recently passed legislation that would cap the price of insulin at $35 per month for insured patients, a major change from the hundreds of dollars that many currently pay per month. (The bill, however, doesn’t apply to uninsured patients and does not change the cost of the actual drug.)

The Senate, meanwhile, will consider its own version of the bill, which is being helmed by Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH). Shaheen’s office notes that they’re expecting to introduce the bill during the upcoming legislative session.

According to a list of priorities the two senators unveiled in early April, the legislation aims to incentivize pharmaceutical companies and insurers to reduce the list price for insulin.

What are the prospects it will pass? The Senate still needs to pass its take on the legislation and then the House will have to consider it. That would require 10 Senate Republicans to sign onto the bill, which is a challenging feat during an election year despite bipartisan interest in lowering prescription drug prices.

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