There’s a lot about Congress’s year-end scramble that’s predictable.
As usual, lawmakers have to finish up a major funding bill that will keep the government open, and are staring down the threat of a potential shutdown if they don’t. With weeks to go before Republicans take the House, however, there’s also a frenzied push to hitch some unexpected ideas to it.
Many of these policies face big challenges due to longstanding political differences. An attempt to expand the child tax credit is still uncertain, with Democrats hoping to find a deal including business tax breaks that Republicans could support. Other proposals including a marijuana banking bill and a compromise on immigration could get delayed yet again due to GOP opposition. Wednesday comments from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell only underscored that obstacle, when he noted that he’d only support an omnibus if it is a “truly bipartisan full-year bill without poison pills.”
Just two major add-ons have been announced by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer so far: the Electoral Count Act, which aims to change how Congress certifies elections and prevent a repeat of the January 6 insurrection, and more aid to Ukraine, following a Biden administration request for $38 billion.
Still, since this is likely Democrats’ final opportunity to advance ambitious policies under unified government, many members have been resolute in pushing for what they can, even if it’s a long shot. “The omnibus is basically the last train leaving the station in terms of a package,” a Senate Democratic aide told Vox.
With roughly a week left before Congress hopes to depart for a holiday break, the amount of floor time to approve pretty much anything beyond the funding bill is dwindling. Below are four of the policies that have been floated as additions in a last-ditch attempt to get them done.
Throughout this year, there’s been a steady push to advance a bipartisan marijuana banking bill that’s thus far stalled because of Republican opposition.
Led by Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Steven Daines (R-MT), the legislation, known as the SAFE Banking Act, enables banks to work with marijuana businesses, which are legal in many states but not at the federal level. To do so, it bars federal regulators from penalizing banks that work with legal marijuana businesses, guaranteeing those businesses — which are currently forced to rely on cash — more secure access to and storage for their capital. An expanded package, dubbed SAFE Banking Plus, also includes funding to support state efforts to expunge records of nonviolent marijuana-related crimes.
Lawmakers had tried to get the bill attached to the National Defense Authorization Act, another piece of must-pass legislation Congress needs to approve before leaving for the holidays. Since that effort was unsuccessful, they’ve since turned their attention to the omnibus funding package, though Republican pushback could wind up killing it once again. Previously, nine Republican senators co-sponsored the legislation, though at least 10 would need to sign on to clear a filibuster.
“I’m hearing that some top Republicans are blocking it from being in the deal,” Merkley told Vox, noting that he’s still pushing for it to be in the omnibus.
McConnell and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) are among those who’ve expressed concerns about the bill and signaled that they’ll work to keep it out of the omnibus. McConnell had stated that the legislation would make the US “financial system more sympathetic to illegal drugs,” and a Grassley spokesperson questioned whether the bill could enable drug cartels to exploit the US banking system. McConnell’s opposition, ultimately, was central to dropping the policy from the defense bill, prompting even Republican co-sponsors to oppose its inclusion.
Merkley emphasized that allowing legal marijuana businesses to work with banks would make the industry and its transactions safer, since many businesses now have to hold large sums of cash on hand and are prime targets for robberies. Allowing legal marijuana businesses to use banks could also make it easier for the IRS to collect taxes, which many businesses currently have to pay in cash. “If you believe in rule of law, you would want to bring the cannabis economy into the electronic banking system,” he told Vox.
Daines echoed this sentiment, per a statement from spokesperson Rachel Dumke. “The Senator is pursuing any avenue to get SAFE Banking passed by the end of the year for the sake of community safety and believes there’s bipartisan support to get it done,” she said.
Child tax credit
As part of the American Rescue Plan, Congress approved an expanded child tax credit that helped pull more than 3 million children out of poverty in 2021. That policy made it so that families received as much as $3,600 per child, a major increase on the $2,000-per-child payments families were receiving beforehand. This provision, however, expired at the end of last year, so many of the gains it achieved have since been lost.
Democrats are pushing for a child tax credit expansion in some form as part of the omnibus bill, though they’ll need Republican backing to do so. To get it, they’re working on a deal involving a trade-off between corporate tax breaks the GOP would support and the child tax credit that Democrats want. As Vox’s Rachel Cohen explained, a key R&D tax break many companies rely on is expiring this year, putting pressure on Republican lawmakers to extend it. Democrats are capitalizing on that timing as part of their CTC push.
“It’s pretty simple: No corporate tax cuts without tax cuts for working families,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), one of the leading Democrats pushing the CTC alongside Sens. Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Cory Booker (D-NJ), said during a press conference last week.
There’s a lot still in flux about what version of the CTC Democrats could secure as part of the omnibus, if they are able to secure one at all. It is likely to be different from the one they passed in 2021, and it’s not yet clear what amount it would be or how long it would last. Lawmakers have said their top priority is ensuring that the CTC remains “fully refundable,” a change that was made in 2021, which allowed the lowest-income families to access the entire credit.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and many Republicans have opposed a renewal of the CTC expansion, suggesting that it could deter parents from working. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT), who has his own child tax credit proposal, told Semafor he felt like progress on the issue likely wouldn’t be made until next year. Given the specific tax deadlines coming up at the end of 2022, Democrats are hoping it could happen sooner.
The longest-shot proposal of all of these is probably immigration reform. Last week, Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ) and Thom Tillis (R-NC) rolled out a framework that would give two million DREAMERs, undocumented immigrants who came to the US as children, a path to citizenship, in exchange for more border security resources and an extension of Title 42. As Vox’s Nicole Narea reported, however, that approach includes provisions that both progressive Democrats and Republicans have opposed, and Tillis has already said he doesn’t intend to push for the bill in the omnibus.
Certain Democrats, however, are still trying to urge some type of immigration reform in this larger package, with the focus on establishing a pathway to citizenship for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients.
“There’s been nonstop efforts” to try to get an immigration fix in the omnibus bill, Sen. Alex Padilla (D-CA) told Vox, a move that’s complicated by how little time they have left and limited Republican interest. “There’s an effort to accomplish some immigration reform, but difficult to do in the last days of the session,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT). “The DACA recipients are a priority.”
As is the case with many policies, the main hold-up to any version of immigration reform is Republican support, and whether 10 senators would sign on. Previously, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) led the introduction of the DREAM Act, which also focuses on providing a pathway to citizenship for DREAMERs, and said there were four to five Republicans who were on board earlier this year.
Were lawmakers able to find a compromise on the issue, the omnibus likely would be their last best bet given the limited floor time the Senate has to work with. If they aren’t able to come to an agreement — a likely outcome — Congress might not be able to consider serious immigration reforms for at least another two years.
A pair of bipartisan antitrust bills aimed at holding the tech industry accountable has also failed to advance up until this point.
The bills, both of which received bipartisan backing in the Senate Judiciary Committee, haven’t seen much movement in the upper chamber since, and are both measures that Blumenthal says he’d like to see in the omnibus.
The first — the Open App Markets Act, led by Sens. Blumenthal, Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) — aims to dilute the reliance that app developers have on app stores run by large tech companies, enabling users of an Apple phone, for example, to get apps elsewhere. “We are seeking to move the Open App Markets Act forward this year through all viable legislative paths,” the Blumenthal and Blackburn offices told Vox.
The second, the American Innovation and Choice Online Act, is led by Klobuchar and Grassley, and would penalize large online platforms for prioritizing their own services over those of competitors. For example, Amazon would face scrutiny for elevating Amazon-branded products on its retail platform.
The White House has also said that antitrust legislation is a priority, while tech companies have argued that it could have unintended negative security impacts. “We are very committed to moving ambitious tech antitrust legislation and we’re stepping up engagement during the lame duck on the President’s agenda across the board, including antitrust,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters in November.
Bill sponsors have said that both these bills have sufficient Republican support to pass, though neither has been scheduled for a floor vote. “Big Tech is very powerful, armed with lobbyists and lawyers that are extremely energetic and focused,” Blumenthal told reporters on Wednesday, when asked why these bills have yet to move forward.