There’s less than two months left until the Republican Party takes complete control of the government on January 20, 2017.
But Washington won’t simply be at a standstill until then. What happens in Congress in the time President Obama has left — during what’s known as the “lame-duck session” — will have a huge impact on the lives of millions of Americans.
At stake is the safety of the drinking water in Flint, Michigan, the pensions of thousands of laid-off coal miners throughout Appalachia, the biggest health reform package since Obamacare, and the paychecks of all US troops — and that’s during what’s considered a relatively uneventful lull in the legislative chambers.
Perhaps just as importantly, the next seven weeks are when Democrats will lay the groundwork for the much bigger and more critical struggle against the soon-to-be empowered GOP. Where congressional Democrats decide to fight now — and who emerges as leading advocates of the opposition — will shape how they’ll try to stop the Republican Party in the next session.
Here is a look at five of the most important fights in the lame-duck Congress — and how they’ll influence the much bigger battles looming around the corner.
1) With an eye toward 2017, how will the GOP try to fund the government?
On Tuesday, President Obama’s top military official sent a scorching letter to Congress blasting it for considering using a “continuing resolution” — known as a “CR” — to fund much of the government at existing levels through the spring of 2017.
“This is unprecedented and unacceptable, especially when we have so many troops operating in harm's way. I strongly urge Congress to reject this approach,” Secretary of Defense Ash Carter wrote in a letter to Republican leaders House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
For the past several years, Democrats and Republicans have been unable to come to an agreement over the size and scope of the federal budget. So they’ve just punted the whole thing by passing the CR, which locks the exact same levels in place for what’s called “discretionary spending” from the year before. (Some federal agencies, like Carter’s, have been running on the same CR for as long as eight years.) By December 9, Congress will again face the same choice — and is again expected to use the short-term CR measure to keep most of everything just as it was.
“It’s the ultimate kicking the can down the road,” notes Sarah Binder, an expert in Congress at the Brookings Institution.
Most experts on the Hill expect Congress to again resort to the CR process to avert the next government shutdown. But how Republicans choose to use the CR could have huge consequences for legislation.
One option is that the GOP simply extends the CR until March, or just after Trump takes office. That would allow Republicans to get in place their preferred federal budget for things like the education and housing departments, which is set by discretionary spending.
But that’s a strategy that, from the GOP perspective, might also have its drawbacks. The CR only applies to “discretionary spending,” one of two big categories of the federal government. It can’t touch things like food stamps, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. If Republicans only make the CR last until March, they’ll also have to deal with the discretionary spending budget at the same time the Senate will likely be dealing with a schedule already clogged by vetting Trump’s Cabinet and sub-Cabinet posts — and perhaps even the beginnings of an ambitious policy agenda. That would leave little time for them to immediately start going after the non-discretionary entitlement spending.
Republicans could instead have the CR run all the way until May. Doing so would clear their legislative calendar, giving the Republican Congress a freer hand to move forward with things like Obamacare repeal. But it would also freeze in place the budgets negotiated by Obama for much longer than they’d otherwise want.
In other words, how Republicans handle the CR is going to be an early sign of the GOP caucus’s top priority. Do Republicans want to first focus on just getting a budget deal with lower federal spending? Or are their sights more trained on bigger legislative overhauls tied to entitlements?
We’ll get a major clue in the next eight days.
2) The livelihoods of tens of thousands of laid-off coal miners and their relatives
On Wednesday night, West Virginia Republican Rep. Evan Jenkins took to the floor of the US House to make a plea to help his state’s retired coal miners.
“When they went down into the mines, they were made a promise — when you retire, you’ll have a good pension and health care benefits,” Jenkins said. “Now that promise is in jeopardy. The pensions and benefits they worked their whole lives for are in jeopardy.”
Jenkins was urging the passage of the Coal Healthcare and Pensions Protection Act. There’s a similar Senate bill, called the Miners Protection Act. They would take money from a separate federal program that pays for current redevelopment projects at abandoned mines, and redirect that funding to the desperately insolvent pension funds of the United Mine Workers of America.
The problem is stark. More than 100,000 former coal miners and their relatives rely on UMWA pensions, which are on the brink of insolvency largely because of the collapse of the coal industry.
Already in October and November, 16,100 former coal miners have received notices that their pensions will run out come the start of the new year. Another 6,500 retired miners will face similar fates at the beginning of next year if nothing is done, according to a letter sent by 22 senators. Tens of thousands more will follow the longer Congress does not act.
The legislation has bipartisan support. Eight Republican senators signed the letter backing the Miners Protection Act. The Senate committee version cleared by an 18-8 vote, and Republican Congress members in Pennsylvania and West Virginia are stalwart backers of the measure.
Its chief foe has been Kentucky’s McConnell. (Some senators in states that benefit from the abandoned mine reclamation funds, like Wyoming’s Mike Enzi, have also opposed the measure.) But exactly why McConnell has almost singlehandedly thwarted the bill has been the subject of an intense debate — McConnell says Congress should instead address what he calls the real problem (President Obama’s “war on coal”), though others have noted that the UMWA heavily backed McConnell’s Democratic rival, Alison Lundergan Grimes, in the 2014 Kentucky Senate race.
Either way, time is running out. Congress is scheduled to go on recess on December 9 — so its members have just seven days to prevent the coal miners that politicians like to talk about protecting from having a very bleak Christmas.
3) The NDAA: a bipartisan effort to throw $3.2 billion more at the US military
Congress is moving forward with a bipartisan bill to jump defense spending by more than $3 billion — far more than President Obama’s administration thinks is necessary.
Arizona Sen. John McCain has spearheaded the legislation, but it also enjoys the support of Democrats like Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Sen. Adam Smith of Washington state. The biggest new spending increase is for soldiers, who would see their salaries bump by about a full percentage point. (It’s the first time in more than six years soldiers get a salary increase beyond 2 points, according to the Military Times.)
That’s putting the Obama administration in a tough spot. Support the bill and they’ll violate their position that military spending shouldn’t increase if the budget for nonmilitary programs stays flat; oppose it, and they’ll effectively be shooting down salary increases for rank-and-file members of the US military.
Indeed, at a press conference with reporters on Thursday, Speaker Ryan only characterized the bill as a net positive for America’s soldiers.
“It gives our troops a much-needed 2.1 percent pay increase. This is extremely important to give our war fighters what they need to stretch our military dollars further,” Ryan said. “That’s something we’re excited about bringing to the floor.”
Now, McCain’s bill does other things to try to generally simplify the structure of the US military — things like capping the size of the National Security Council and rejiggering the breakdown of the military generals, says a spokesperson from McCain’s office. Facing a veto from the president, Republicans also agreed to take out a provision that would have allowed federal contractors to discriminate against gay people and religious minorities.
But it also means one of the last major legislative overhauls of the Obama era is a big increase in military spending.
4) How much help does lead-stricken Flint, Michigan, get?
A big breakthrough for Flint, Michigan, came this October when the House of Representatives agreed to a $170 million aid package for new pipes in the lead-stricken city.
But a separate $220 million aid package had been already passed through the Senate, also devoted to helping cities whose water had been poisoned by lead.
Which of the two versions gets the final rubber stamp will be determined in the next eight days — and have big implications for the city, says Democratic Rep. Dan Kildee, who represents Flint in Congress.
“It’ll determine the pace and the speed at which Flint can recover,” Kildee says.
The good news is that even Flint’s advocates feel relatively assured that, at the very least, the smaller $170 million package will get through. That money would go directly to paying the construction costs of completely replacing the pipes within the city.
Less clear is whether it will prove anywhere near enough to complete the task. On Thursday, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver announced that the city was tripling its estimate for the number of lead-poisoned pipes that need to be replaced. (A spokesperson for Kildee says there’s no apparent appetite in Congress for tripling the emergency response funding as a result.)
Moreover, while the money really would help Flint rebuild its infrastructure, it does essentially nothing for those who have already been hurt by the city’s poisoned drinking water. In February, Kildee of Flint introduced a $750 million funding bill called the Families of Flint Act. Among other things, it called for new school and health programs for children in Flint to offset the effects of being exposed to lead at an early age and money for a new Center of Excellence on Lead Exposure to study how to mitigate lead exposure.
Under the best-case scenario, none of those things is on the table.
5) Who emerges to lead the Democratic opposition?
Some Democrats on the Hill privately concede that policy hasn’t really been at the forefront of their minds over the past week.
“Everybody is concentrated on the organization of the caucus on the House side,” one House Democratic staffer admitted in an interview.
The most important personnel fight was decided on Wednesday, when House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi beat back a challenge from Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan for her position. Much of the rest of the leadership on both the House and Senate sides has already been decided.
The biggest official races remaining for Democrats are over who controls the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — where incumbent chair Ben Ray Luján is seen as a heavy favorite — and over a new policy steering committee connected to House Whip Steny Hoyer.
But House members say that these official positions may wind up proving less critical battlegrounds than informal contests for Democratic leadership. Instead, they suggested what will be much more important is who emerges in the media and in Congress as voices leading the charge against Trump.
“We have been fighting Republicans in Congress with an administration as our principle ally and partner in that fight. And we won’t have that anymore,” Kildee says. “That different dynamic opens the possibility that leaders who are not playing formal leadership roles but are just moved by their own outrage are going to emerge.”
You can see this dynamic already playing out, as some Democrats, like Arizona Rep. Ruben Gallego, have seized the spotlight to go after Trump’s sketchy global conflicts of interest. Others like, Massachusetts Rep. Katherine Clark, have begun pushing legislation that would force Trump put his assets in a certified blind trust.
Just as important to watch is how unified Democrats are in their response to Trump and the GOP. New Senate Majority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer recently announced an expanded leadership team that includes Sen. Bernie Sanders at the left flank of the party, and West Virginia Blue Dog Sen. Joe Manchin. It’s an effort to put up a united front that doesn’t allow the Republicans to peel away votes for key legislative efforts.
“Democrats are going to try to keep their forces together,” says Michele Swers, a congressional expert at Georgetown. “The more the top of the Democratic Party can tie conservative senators together into the leadership, the more buy-in they have and the more say they’ll have — and, hopefully, the more they’ll stay on board with what the party tries to do.”