As Congress faces a December 21 deadline to avert a partial government shutdown, it must also clear a stack of other must-pass bills that affect millions of people and major sections of the economy.
The lame-duck session is winnowing down with the holidays quickly approaching and the next session of Congress kicking off January 3, leaving little time to break through legislative standoffs that have bogged down progress on key issues for months.
Also at play are end-of-session dynamics such as retiring lawmakers who have little appetite for congressional fights or Democrats who see a better path to success for major issues once their party takes over the House next year.
Key on the to-do list is reauthorizing the monumental farm bill – a huge piece of legislation that sets the eating and farming policy of the United States. It covers crop insurance and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – commonly referred to as food stamps – as well as proposed changes to federal forest management policies.
The farm bill technically expired September 30, though major elements are funded through the end of the year.
Negotiators recently came to an agreement on a final version after the House and Senate passed drastically different bills earlier this year. One of the major sticking points was the House bill’s controversial addition of stricter work requirements for SNAP.
The new agreement, however, largely resembles the Senate version and excludes the stricter work requirements.
Violence Against Women Act
Also high on the list is the Violence Against Women Act, which was set to expire on September 30. The bill has been extended through December 21, along with the must-pass spending bill to avoid the partial government shutdown.
The current law, enacted in 1994 and reauthorized ever since, addresses sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence and stalking, primarily by providing grants and support to organizations and law enforcement programs that work with domestic violence victims and prevention.
Democrats and Republicans each introduced their own reauthorization bills this fall, but so far a final deal hasn’t been reached. A Republican leadership aide said a lapse in funding for VAWA is not anticipated, but it’s unclear whether a full five-year re-authorization with new legislation will happen in this Congress or the next.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who’s the heavy favorite to be the next speaker of the House of Representatives, urged passage last week of a long-term re-authorization before the end of the year but said Democrats would take it up early next year if not.
“We’d like to do it this Congress, but if not we’ll have to take it up at the beginning of next year,” she said. “But we’d rather do it (in) the Congress in which it was debated.”
Disaster relief funding
The same Republican leadership aide said the National Flood Insurance Program is also expected to see continued funding, even if it’s unclear yet whether it will get a full re-authorization. The flood insurance program expired in 2017 but has been continued with multiple stopgaps ever since, and was most recently extended until December 21.
The program covers 5 million families in 22,000 communities. Lawmakers have been at odds over how to add investments and make reforms to the program to help mitigate flood costs. Regional divides also exist between those who want to see a smaller federal role in flood insurance and those who live in flood zones and coastal areas.
Along the lines of disaster relief, lawmakers are also trying to get emergency relief funding after devastating wildfires in California this year that cost dozens of lives and billions in damage.
Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein told Politico on Thursday she doesn’t expect to get the $9 billion she requested for her state.
Feinstein spokesman Tom Mentzer told CNN that the senator was referring to the fact that the $9 billion may not all come in the first round, but rather in several tranches as it has in the past.
“This isn’t a problem now as there’s sufficient disaster funds to pay for ongoing work,” Mentzer said.
Sexual harassment legislation
Also on the docket for Congress – though not necessarily must-pass items by the end of the year – are key bills that remain in limbo as the clock ticks down. Sexual harassment reform in Congress is a high-profile item that was cleared in both chambers but through drastically different bills, and talks to merge the two bills together have stalled.
Republican Sen. Roy Blunt, a member of the GOP leadership and chairman of the Rules Committee, said “we need to get this settled.”
“There is a House bill and there is Senate bill,” added the senator from Missouri. “So, we’re down to where we could settle this with one vote on each side of the building and put it on the President’s desk and it would be a huge mistake, I think, to miss this opportunity.”
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, who’s set to become the next House majority leader, told reporters last week he was “hopeful” Congress would pass a final bill before the end of the year.
“If we don’t, it’s going to be very early on in our agenda next year,” he said.
If these issues do come for a vote this month, it’s unclear if they’ll get added to the must-pass spending bill or if they’ll get their own separate votes.
When GOP Sen. Richard Shelby, chairman of the Senate appropriations committee, was asked about adding the farm bill, the Violence Against Women Act re-authorization and sexual harassment legislation to the government spending package, he said ultimately it was up to the leadership to decide but he preferred not piling on complicated and politically tricky bills to the spending bills.
“We want to keep as many non-appropriations-type items off the bill, because it helped us move to where we are today,” he said last week.
Overhauling the US prison and sentencing laws
Meanwhile in the Senate, there’s a heated debate going on over criminal justice reform among Republicans. The legislation at hand, known as the First Step Act, would allow some current and future prisoners to get out earlier, and rehabilitate into society through halfway houses, home confinement or other supervision, by reducing drug-related mandatory sentences and making more offenders eligible for early release.
The bill has backing from President Donald Trump and some major Republican donors but faces fierce opposition among some Republicans who say now is not the time to tackle criminal justice reform.
GOP leaders in the Senate have repeatedly said they are assessing whether to take the bill to the floor but acknowledge their Republican caucus is deeply divided on the reforms and there is very little time left in the session to debate changes to the bill.
“The question is can you shoe horn something that’s extremely controversial into the remaining time,” Senate Majority Leaders Mitch McConnell said at an event last week. “It’s extremely divisive inside the Senate Republicans conference.”
Also in the Senate is a long-running debate over a bill to protect special counsel Robert Mueller, who’s leading the Russia investigation. Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, who is retiring at the end of his term in January, has teamed up with Democrats to push for a vote on the bill, but those efforts have gone unsuccessful, as Senate GOP leaders have repeatedly said there’s no need for such legislation.
CNN’s Alex Rogers and Sunlen Serfaty contributed to this report.