Congress's goal in December: Avoid shutdown and default

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Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)
Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)


Congress faces a government shutdown by week's end and the expiration of the debt limit on Dec. 15, giving Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) two big challenges at the start of a very busy December.

Schumer on Monday said avoiding a shutdown would be a top priority in the week ahead.

"With so many critical issues, the last thing that the American people need right now is a shutdown. The last thing the American people need right now is a government shutdown, and Democrats are going to work this week to make sure we don't have one," he said.

Republicans on Monday complained that Schumer and Pelosi have let various must-pass bills pile up until the end of the year, setting up a chaotic finish to 2021.

"Here we are now with just a few short days intervening between now and Christmas and the end-of-the-year legislative mad dash is officially upon us," Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said on the Senate floor ahead of what lawmakers expect will be a crazy work period.

Congress needs to fund the government, extend the nation's borrowing authority, reauthorize defense programs and finish work on President Bident's climate and social spending agenda.

"This year our Democratic colleagues who control the Senate agenda have ignored some of the Senate's most important and basic responsibilities, leaving us with a whole lot to do and not a whole lot of time in which to do it," Cornyn said.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) is engaged in negotiations with Sen. Richard Shelby (Ala.), the ranking Republican on his panel, and their counterparts in the House with a goal of unveiling a stopgap spending measure by Wednesday, according to an aide briefed on the talks.

Democratic and Republican aides predict the short-term funding measure, which would last until Jan. 21 or Jan. 28, will pass relatively easily by the end of the week.

A Senate Democratic aide familiar with the stopgap resolution says it will be "lean" and have a "limited number" of added measures, such as emergency funding to help resettle Afghan refugees.

There's disagreement over how long the continuing resolution should last, as Republicans are pushing for more time next year to hammer out the details of the 12 annual appropriations bills.

"We believe as much time as possible is needed to provide additional opportunities for a resolution of the FY22 bills, particularly if Democrats continue to insist on their poison pills," said a Senate GOP aide.

"Our staffs are talking," Shelby said Monday. "The last I heard earlier today is they're talking about January.

"The real question is when do we sit down and talk substantively," he added, noting that Democrats are more focused on Biden's climate and social spending package. "We're not going to talk substantively with them about moving the bills - not just the CR - until they get serious about it."

The tougher challenge will be to find a way to raise the debt limit by the Dec. 15 deadline set by Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen.

Schumer and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) held a short meeting before the Thanksgiving recess about finding a way forward on the issue, but they have shared few details about what they discussed.

Neither Schumer nor McConnell touched on the looming debt limit impasse when they spoke on the floor Monday to set up the week ahead.

Some budget experts have speculated that the Treasury Department might have flexibility to push the expiration of the debt limit until January or February. However, Yellen made clear in a letter to Congress that she has little room to maneuver because of a balloon payment required by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which recently became law.

Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.) on Monday said Schumer and McConnell are continuing to work on a deal that would allow Democrats to raise the debt ceiling without any Republican votes.

"McConnell and Schumer are meeting on it," he said. "I suspect that them and their staffs will continue to meet until there's a plan that they can talk about."

He said Dec. 15 is "the goal everybody is working toward right now, especially given the fact they had to transfer money to the Highway Trust Fund, so I think that created more of a sense of urgency to accelerate the process."

"All I can tell you is the Democrats are going to have to deliver the votes; we've been saying that all along," Thune added.

A senior Senate Republican aide said a ruling by the parliamentarian indicated that Democrats would be able to use the budget reconciliation process to suspend the debt limit to a later date, which would spare them from a politically painful vote in favor for a higher specific debt number.

Republicans are pointing to that ruling to argue that Democrats should use the budget reconciliation process to raise the debt limit, and several GOP senators say their conference will yield back procedural time so the process doesn't burn up a week of floor time.

A Democratic aide, however, disputed the GOP's characterization of the parliamentarian's advice.

Democrats say the parliamentarian was clear that the debt limit must be raised to a specific amount under budget reconciliation, but they assert the issue is irrelevant because Schumer isn't planning to use reconciliation to adjust the debt ceiling.

But any agreement to raise the debt limit through a sped-up budget reconciliation process would require consent from all 100 senators, and it's not yet clear that conservatives such as Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) would agree to make the process for increasing the debt ceiling less onerous for Democrats.

McConnell did not raise the subject of the debt ceiling or his negotiations with Schumer during a meeting with his leadership team Monday evening, according to a person familiar with the discussion.

Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) said Monday "there are some Democratic senators" who have acknowledged using the budget reconciliation process is the most obvious path for raising the debt ceiling but that Democratic leaders have balked at that option.

Adding to the overloaded schedule is the need to pass the annual defense authorization bill, which hit a snag Monday when Senate Republicans blocked it because of a disagreement over voting on amendments to the legislation.

Both sides view the measure, which has been enacted for 61 consecutive years, as must-pass legislation.

McConnell accused Schumer of trying to rush the defense legislation through the Senate to give him more time to wrap up work on Biden's Build Back Better climate and social spending package before Christmas. Republicans say the bill on average takes two weeks to process through the Senate and shouldn't be crammed into a few days of floor time.

"The Democratic leader kept this year's defense authorization bill in limbo literally for months and now wants to block the Senate from a real debate and a real amendment process," McConnell said on the floor moments before Republicans defeated a motion to advance the defense legislation.

Mike Lillis contributed.

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