WASHINGTON – The deadline for Congress has arrived. This is the final week of the legislative session that ends Jan. 3: Lawmakers will go home for the holidays and not return until the New Year.
But before they can start the festivities, they have a long to-do list. The biggest task is to pass a funding bill to keep the government open after Thursday. But staving off another government shutdown won’t be legislators' only job. They’ll have to weigh a number of funding requests from the White House, including money for fighting Ebola and battling the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS.
The Senate must pass a package of tax-cut extensions, or risk seeing millions of individual and corporate tax bills go up next year. And the Senate must deal with several nominations that will likely otherwise die once Republicans take over the Senate in January.
Here are the four things to watch in Washington this week:
Will there be a government shutdown?
If Congress gets nothing else done this week, preventing a government shutdown would still be a major accomplishment. Negotiations continued over the weekend to decide what will be included in the $1.1 trillion spending bill. The contents of the bill, which is being closely guarded, could affect whether it's approved by the Thursday deadline.
If Congress doesn't pass a bill by Friday morning, the government will shutdown, at least partially since crucial government services like the military and law enforcement will remain open.
Leadership is taking the process down to the wire. The House isn’t expected to file the bill until Monday evening. Then there will be a scramble to get it passed, with the loudest opposition expected from some of the chamber’s most conservative voices.
Congress must also decide whether they will include several funding requests President Barack Obama has made in the last year. He’s asked for money to fund the fight against Ebola in West Africa and to fight the Islamic State group. Plus, the president has a long-standing request for additional funding to handle the summer’s influx of child immigrants from Central America.
The inclusion of some policy riders – like efforts to undo Obama’s environmental regulations or undo a vote Washington, D.C., residents took to legalize marijuana – could cost the bill Democratic votes. And without Democrats, it might be impossible to pass the spending measure in the House.
If problems start to arise, Republican leadership will have a small window to try a new plan. The legislation must be passed before Friday morning.
Will the Senate sign off on a one-year tax cut extension?
The effort to put together a major deal to renew and make permanent several tax cuts fell apart last month. The deal would have affected both corporate and individual tax payers.
But before a bill was even drafted, Obama announced he would veto the package because it didn’t include a renewal of tax breaks for working class individuals. The popular Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit, which are slated to expire in 2017, weren’t part of the deal.
So instead of passing a big piece of legislation, Congress opted to hold off until next year. The House has already approved a bill that will extend all of the tax cuts, including the popular research and development credit for corporations, another year.
Now the ball is in the Senate’s court. They are expected to take up the one-year bill. But Democrats are just days away from losing control of the chamber, which means this could be one of the last pieces of tax legislation where they hold considerable leverage. They may choose to exercise it by not passing the House bill.
Will Congress finally weigh in on the fight against ISIS?
One of the biggest outstanding items on Congress’ list is passing legislation to authorize U.S. military action against the Islamic State group.
Obama has asked Congress to pass an Authorization for Use of Military Force, also known as AUMF, since the current fight is being waged using authorizations approved more than a decade ago.
Congress doesn't seem eager to address the issue. As Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, former and current secretaries of state, respectively, discovered in the wake of their Iraq war votes, authorizations for military force can be problematic for politicians for years to come.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kent., trying to jump-start the process, filed an AUMF last week. But the White House still hasn’t sent Congress its preferred language. If that were to come this week, it could reignite discussions. But it's more likely that the issue will drag into next year.
"There's not a snowball's chance in Gila Bend, Ariz., I promise you, to get in AUMF in this session of Congress,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., according to The Hill.
How many nominations can the Senate approve?
The Senate is racing to approve as many Obama appointees as possible before this week --and Democrats' control of the Senate -- ends. There are more than 100 outstanding nominations, including agency positions and judicial nominees across the country. Almost all are noncontroversial.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has complained about the pace of nominations for years now, arguing that Republicans have stalled, forcing Democrats to jump through procedural hoops to move noncontroversial nominees. To try to speed the process, Reid implemented the “nuclear option,” which required no Republican support to approve nominees.
But that still hasn’t allowed Democrats to complete the large number of nominations that remain. Democrats and Republicans could try to strike a deal that would allow them to move several nominees through speedier voice votes or to vote on batches of names at once.
But regardless of how quickly Reid can speed through the nominees, many will remain unapproved when January arrives. That would give the Republicans, newly in control of both chambers, a chance to show their muscle and make life difficult for the president. With their anger still simmering over his executive orders on immigration, GOP lawmakers might be eager to rumble.