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Same-sex marriage protections and 4 other big items on Congress’s to-do list

Lawmakers are finally back from recess. Here’s what they still need to get done.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.
The Senate returns from recess this fall with a lengthy to-do list.
Ting Shen/Bloomberg via 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 may have gotten one big agenda item done before leaving for August recess, but a lengthy to-do list awaits lawmakers as they return this week (in the Senate) and next (in the House). At the top of it: a vote on legislation to protect same-sex marriage that will force some Republicans to stop dithering and take a position on an issue that some still view as politically fraught.

Although a Senate vote on the bill got delayed this summer, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), the Democrat leading the push for the legislation, is working to ensure a vote can take place in September, according to a spokesperson.

There’s a lot more on Congress’s docket as well, and a very short time to do it: Both chambers are scheduled to take off a large chunk of October as the midterm elections approach on November 8.

Between now and then, there’s a major deadline on passing appropriations to keep the government open, more judicial vacancies that Democrats want to fill, and a backlog of other bills lawmakers are eying. All of these items take on new urgency given the high likelihood Republicans will take control of the House in January, allowing them to block pretty much anything Democrats want to get done.

Here’s a look at what Congress needs to do, what Democrats really want to do, and one big priority that could crop up later in the year.

1) Passing legislation to protect same-sex marriage

In July, the House passed the Respect for Marriage Act, legislation that would codify protections for same-sex marriage into federal law. Since then, there’s been an ongoing question of if the bill can pass the Senate, given the 60 votes it would need to overcome the filibuster.

The bill passed with a surprising number of House Republican votes (though most of the caucus opposed it), seemingly catching Democratic leaders in the Senate off guard. Democrats in the upper chamber now have a chance to shepherd it into law before the end of this term.

Schumer said right before recess that he wanted to bring the bill to the floor and that Democrats were working to get the Republican support it needed to pass. Several Republicans including Texas Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz have already said they oppose the bill and don’t see a need for it since they don’t believe these rights will be threatened. Democrats, meanwhile, have pointed to an opinion written by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas that referenced Obergefell as a decision he would be interested in revisiting.

Thus far, four Republicans have publicly backed the bill including Sens. Susan Collins (ME), Lisa Murkowski (AK), Rob Portman (OH), and Thom Tillis (NC). Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) has signaled that he won’t oppose the bill but has not committed to supporting it, either. Baldwin and Collins, who is also a bill co-sponsor, are trying to address some outstanding Republican concerns by adding an amendment that would clarify the impact the bill would have on religious liberty, Axios reports.

As of last week, Baldwin still seems bullish that the legislation will eventually garner sufficient Republican backing. “Senator Baldwin feels confident there is the Republican support needed to pass the bipartisan legislation,” her spokesperson said.

2) Keeping the government open

It’s that time of year, again. Appropriations — also known as spending bills that fund government agencies — expire at the end of September. At that point, Congress has to pass a whole new set of 12 appropriations bills to keep the government funded and open.

Typically, Congress has been unable to complete its work on all 12 appropriations bills by this deadline, resulting in lawmakers passing what’s known as a continuing resolution (CR), or short-term funding bill, which keeps funding levels for all federal agencies at the same level as the previous year. That route may not be ideal, especially for programs that may need new funding, but doing so means the government won’t shut down because it still has money to operate.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the chair of the Appropriations Committee, plans to introduce a CR in the coming weeks, according to a spokesperson for the panel.

The push to pass the CR could become more complicated if lawmakers try to attach other provisions to the legislation. Already, a group of House lawmakers is opposing the addition of measures that would bolster fossil fuel production, which were offered to Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) as part of a deal to support the Inflation Reduction Act. Given Democratic control of both chambers, it’s unlikely the government will shut down, though slim margins in the Senate give Republicans more leeway to put forth their priorities and slow the process.

3) Judges, judges, judges

One major task the Senate has in addition to passing bills is confirming judicial and executive branch nominees. In the last two years, especially, it’s become a high priority for many Democrats who want to even the scales after the Trump administration aggressively filled vacancies. Thus far, Biden has already seen more judges confirmed than recent administrations at the same time.

If Democrats lose the Senate this fall, however, they would also lose the ability to push through judges without Republicans voting for them, meaning it would be hard to approve any judges. That possibility has fueled activist calls for Democrats to approve more judges while they still can. In a recent Slate op-ed, Chris Kang, Demand Justice’s chief counsel, noted that Democrats could still leave over 60 vacancies open at the end of the year.

Kang is urging the White House to expedite the nominations of additional judges and the Senate Judiciary Committee to hold more confirmation hearings, and consider more nominees in those hearings. Senate Judiciary Chair Dick Durbin (D-IL) is committed to keeping judges a “top priority” for the upper chamber, according to a committee spokesperson.

4) Electoral Count Act reform

A bipartisan group of lawmakers is trying to prevent another effort to overturn an election like the one that came to a head on January 6. They want to do that by making changes to the Electoral Count Act, laying out how Congress counts each state’s electoral voters and would make it harder for lawmakers to challenge the outcomes in different states.

A new bill that has the backing of ten Republican senators would clarify the vice president’s role in the vote certification process and require more lawmakers to sign on in both the House and the Senate in order to register a contest to a state’s election results.

Lawmakers have stressed the importance of passing this bill quickly, as some Republicans continue to question the results of the 2020 election and indicate a willingness to do the same if their preferred candidate doesn’t win in 2024.

5) One they might not get to: Raising the debt ceiling

An increase to the debt ceiling is less of an immediate priority and more of an issue that could come up during the lame-duck Congress session later this year.

Last December, lawmakers raised the debt ceiling by $2.5 trillion, an amount that likely means another increase won’t be needed until 2023, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Still, Democrats may want to raise the debt ceiling during the lame-duck portion of the congressional session after the midterms if Republicans win back the House, as they are expected to. If control of Congress is split next year, it’s likely that routine votes like the debt ceiling and appropriations will become much more contentious.

In the last few decades, it’s become more common for lawmakers to use must-pass votes like the debt ceiling to make a political statement. One of the riskiest standoffs took place in 2011, when House Republicans refused to suspend the debt limit until President Barack Obama agreed to spending cuts. That year, the country nearly defaulted and saw its credit rating downgraded because of how close Congress cut to the deadline.

Democrats could raise the debt ceiling and avoid a repeat when they still have full congressional control, by the end of the year.

Without the urgency of a pending deadline, however, Shai Akabas, the economic policy director of the Bipartisan Policy Center, thinks lawmakers probably won’t move quickly. “Given how much else they have on the table and that this won’t be an imminent problem at that time, my guess is that it’s less likely” to happen during lame duck, he told Vox.