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NDAA, debt ceiling, government funding: Here's what's left for Congress to address in 2021

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  • Joe Biden
    Joe Biden
    46th and current president of the United States
  • Chuck Schumer
    Chuck Schumer
    American politician

WASHINGTON – When Congress returns from Thanksgiving break, it will have a slate of legislative items it must pass – and others it may try to push through – by the calendar-year's end.

Both chambers of Congress will work in overdrive to try to avoid a government shutdown and default, both of which would be catastrophic for an economy grappling with the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic.

What is inflation, and how does it affect you? Increase in prices for gas, food, energy raise concern

In addition, lawmakers must pass a national security package.

Other legislative priorities include President Joe Biden's Build Back Better bill and a China competitiveness bill.

These are no small feat for any Congress, much less one as evenly divided – and contentious – as this.

Here's what Congress needs to address in the rest of 2021 and other priorities that Democratic leadership may push for.

Government funding to avoid shutdown

Congress has until Friday to avoid a government shutdown.

More: Biden signs bill to avert government shutdown, approves bill to fund government through Dec. 3

In late September, Biden and Congress averted a shutdown hours before a midnight deadline by funding the government until the beginning of December.

A shutdown would furlough hundreds of thousands of nonessential federal employees, forcing them to take time off without pay. Essential functions such as the military, law enforcement and air traffic control would continue, but discretionary agencies such as the National Park Service would close.

More: Government shutdown worries have federal offices bracing for furloughs as Congress rushes to pass funding bill

The main entrance to Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona was closed Oct. 10, 2013, during a federal government shutdown.
The main entrance to Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona was closed Oct. 10, 2013, during a federal government shutdown.

The last government shutdown lasted 35 days, starting Dec. 21, 2018, when Donald Trump was president. It followed brief shutdowns in January and February 2018.

Raising debt ceiling to avoid default

Congress has struggled to address the debt limit – the typically nonpartisan issue of the nation's ability to borrow money. Raising the debt ceiling would cover expenses lawmakers in both parties have run up and must be paid.

The House passed legislation in mid-October that raised the nation's debt ceiling for several weeks, allowing the government to keep paying its bills and avoid the economic chaos that would come if the United States defaulted.

More: House votes to raise debt ceiling, sending bill to Biden and setting up another fight over borrowing limit

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen told lawmakers she estimated the United States would reach its debt ceiling by Dec. 15.

If the United States defaults on its debt for the first time, the results could lead to a global recession, Treasury Department officials and experts said. A tanked market would hurt 401(k)s and other investments. A debt ceiling standoff in 2013 cost the economy 1% in GDP.

The national debt approaches $29 trillion. The ceiling was extended to cover rising debt incurred by spending programs and tax cuts passed by Congresses under the leadership of both parties.

GOP lawmakers said during the summer they wouldn't help Democrats, who narrowly control Congress, to lift the ceiling because they felt excluded from negotiations on Biden's big-ticket spending proposals, such as the Build Back Better Act.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., insisted that Democrats address the issue by themselves through a legislative procedure called reconciliation, a maneuver that would allow Democrats to approve the bill without Republican support. Democrats said this option would be cumbersome and lead to long debates.

The president urged Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and the rest of the Republicans to "get out of the way" and let Democrats suspend the nation's debt limit to keep the government from a devastating credit default.
The president urged Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and the rest of the Republicans to "get out of the way" and let Democrats suspend the nation's debt limit to keep the government from a devastating credit default.

McConnell and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., met in person before the Thanksgiving break on the issue, and they had a "good conversation," according to McConnell.

“We agreed to kind of keep talking, working together to try to get somewhere,” McConnell said.

NDAA: Must-pass defense policy bill

Before the end of the year, Congress will need to address the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), a must-pass national security package.

The NDAA is one of the most important pieces of military legislation passed by Congress each year, authorizing appropriation and spending for the Department of Defense and other defense-related agencies.

More: Senate overrides Trump's NDAA veto – the first such rebuke of his presidency

The NDAA usually passes with bipartisan support. Around the end of 2020, both chambers of Congress overrode Trump's veto of the 2021 NDAA – a rare rebuke in a divided Washington that underscored the importance of the legislation and its funding.

The 2022 NDAA passed the House in September and will be debated after the Thanksgiving break in the Senate. Senators adjourned for the recess amid hundreds of amendments filed on the legislation.

The amended NDAA would be kicked back down to the House for passage before it landed on Biden's desk for a signature.

More: Women would be required to register with the Selective Service if this amendment becomes law

The 2022 legislation includes an amendment that would require women to sign up for the Selective Service – and thus any drafts – and several provisions to examine the war in Afghanistan after the U.S. withdrawal and evacuation in August.

Schumer is pushing to repeal the 2002 Iraq War authorization as part of the bill.

Build Back Better hurdles

Though House Democrats celebrated passing Biden's Build Back Better Act before the Thanksgiving break, challenges lie ahead for the massive bill.

More: House passes Biden’s Build Back Better bill, sending measure with free preschool, climate initiatives to the Senate

The legislation is a wide-ranging package of Democratic social spending priorities, including free preschool, initiatives to fight climate change and affordable housing programs.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats cheer after passage of the Build Back Better Act on Nov. 19, 2021, in Washington.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats cheer after passage of the Build Back Better Act on Nov. 19, 2021, in Washington.

Though it passed the lower chamber with a 220-213 vote, the legislation faces an uncertain future in the Senate.

Senate Democrats could pass it using the reconciliation process, which would bypass any Republican filibuster. But Biden and Democratic leaders need the support of all 50 Democratic voting-senators – and Vice President Kamala Harris' tiebreaking vote – to pass the bill that way.

They don't have all 50 on board with the House-passed legislation.

Moderate Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia haven't signed on to the nearly $2 trillion dollar bill and flagged areas of concern. They are part of the reason the bill started as a wish list that topped $6 trillion, then fell to $3.5 trillion and is now around $2 trillion.

It is likely to be changed in the upper chamber to gain the support of the two moderates, requiring another vote in the House for it to make it to Biden's desk for a signature.

Manchin expressed qualms over a paid family leave provision. He has repeatedly said that although he might support family leave separately, he doesn't believe it belongs in the social spending bill.

What's in the House-passed Build Back Better bill? Paid leave, pre-K and more

"That's a piece of legislation that really is needed from the standpoint: if we do it and do it right," he told CNN's "New Day" in November. He said it should be bipartisan and with "regular order through the process," instead of the budget reconciliation process.

Democrats dropped their proposal to provide 12 weeks of paid family leave in late October in response to Manchin's concerns, then added it in about a week later, scaled back to four weeks.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., an advocate for federally mandated paid family and medical leave, remained hopeful it would be included despite Manchin's resistance. She told CBS News' "Face the Nation" she thinks she and Manchin "can come together hopefully in the next couple of weeks on something that could be included in this package."

"I'm hopeful that if I can use the next three weeks to really impress upon Sen. Manchin that some things can only be done with Democrats – only that now is the only time to do that, perhaps, in the next decade," she said.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., far left, arrive to vote on a temporary government funding bill to avert a shutdown, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021. President Joe Biden appears unable to strike swift agreement with the two wavering Democrats who are pivotal votes for his big $3.5 trillion government overhaul.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., far left, arrive to vote on a temporary government funding bill to avert a shutdown, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021. President Joe Biden appears unable to strike swift agreement with the two wavering Democrats who are pivotal votes for his big $3.5 trillion government overhaul.

It's unclear where Sinema stands on the legislation. She told Politico, “If you're in the middle of negotiating things that are delicate or difficult ... doing it in good faith directly with each other is the best way to get to an outcome.”

More: Sen. Kyrsten Sinema explains her strategy on infrastructure, spending bills

Schumer said during a news briefing this week, "The House did a very strong bill. Everyone knows that Manchin and Sinema have their concerns, but we're going to try to negotiate with them and get a very strong, bold bill out of the Senate, which will then go back to the House and pass."

The leader said his party would like to finish the bill by Christmas.

Including immigration in BBB

Democrats have struggled to reach a consensus on sweeping immigration changes. They will push through the end of the year to include immigration provisions in the Build Back Better Act.

This comes in light of several setbacks in their attempts to include immigration proposals into Biden's budget package. Advocates said time is running out to pass comprehensive reform before next year's midterm elections.

'We can't wait': Immigration advocates worry time is running out to pass a pathway to citizenship

In their effort to include a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in the budget package, Senate Democrats presented two proposals last month to Senate parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough. Both were rejected on the premise the policy impact outweighed the budget impact.

MacDonough, a nonpartisan, unelected staff member, determines whether policies included in a reconciliation package abide by the Senate's Byrd Rule, which states only policies that have a direct impact on the federal budget can be included.

The options to move forward on immigration are limited, and many advocates and some congressional Democrats see the reconciliation process as the best option in a divided Congress. They urged Democrats to ignore MacDonough's rulings and include the pathway to citizenship in the bill.

Who is the Senate parliamentarian? Meet the referee on major legislation

Manchin said he wouldn't vote to overrule the parliamentarian, telling Fox News he's "not going to do that."

Axios reported this week that the parliamentarian has been meeting with Democratic staffers on a provision in the legislation: granting work permits to about 6.5 million undocumented people and temporary protection from deportation.

The meeting was a hopeful sign for staffers of progress on that provision, as it was not ruled out, Axios reported.

The policy does not guarantee a pathway to citizenship, which advocates and Democratic lawmakers call for.

'Safeguard our elections': Voting rights

Schumer told his caucus this month he would attempt to focus on voting rights before the end of the year.

The House has approved several voting rights bills, but Senate Republicans blocked their advance in the upper chamber this year.

More: Republicans block John Lewis Voting Rights Act in Senate vote

Republicans opposing the legislation say it is part of a partisan strategy for Democrats to federalize election rules to their advantage.
Republicans opposing the legislation say it is part of a partisan strategy for Democrats to federalize election rules to their advantage.

The Freedom to Vote Act would expand early voting options, voter identification requirements and access to mail-in ballots and allow for same-day registration on election day. The legislation was scaled back from the For the People Act in an attempt to get Republicans on board.

More: Senate Democrats unveil voting rights bill in latest effort to bring federal rules to elections

This month, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, was the only Republican to vote to advance another bill – the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. It would replace part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down in 2013 and would aim to restore Justice Department review of changes in election law in states with a history of discrimination.

Democrats have pushed for changes to battle gerrymandering and state laws restricting voters' access. Trump and Republican state lawmakers continue to advance baseless conspiracy theories that the 2020 election was stolen.

A USA TODAY analysis of 254 new laws in 45 states passed since then revealed a variety of changes voters may notice and other administrative changes happening behind the scenes. In total, about 55 million eligible voters live in states with changes that will give them less access.

‘A new American fault line’: How new election laws will make it harder for 55 million to vote

'Use your soapbox': Activists urge Biden to step up voting rights push as latest bill fails in Senate

Getting 10 Senate Republicans on board to pass any legislation would be a difficult feat. They have consistently argued federal changes to voting laws are unnecessary, and elections should be handled at the state level.

McConnell said in October that what Democrats have wanted "to do forever is to have the federal government take over how elections are conducted all over America."

Schumer wrote to Senate Democrats that the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would "work together to safeguard our elections and promote equitable access to the ballot, while fighting back against partisan gerrymandering and unaccountable dark money."

He continued: "But just because Republicans will not join us doesn’t mean Democrats should stop fighting. This is too important. Even if it means going at it alone, we will continue to fight for voting rights and work to find an alternative path forward to defend the most fundamental liberty we have as citizens."

He said Democrats "have been discussing ideas for how to restore the Senate to protect our democracy," hinting at discussing changes to the filibuster.

Several Democrats oppose carving out or changing the filibuster, including Manchin and Sinema.

China competitiveness bill

Both chambers of Congress are likely to consider legislation aimed at reinvigorating America's technological footprint to counter China and invest in semiconductor manufacturing.

The legislation – the United States Innovation and Competition Act – passed the Senate this summer with bipartisan support, but the House never passed its own bill.

Both chambers are renegotiating the legislation.

More: Senate passes bill to boost US science and tech innovation to compete with China

Schumer sought to attach the bill to the NDAA last week, but the plan faced opposition from Senate Republicans.

Pelosi and Schumer announced they would enter into formal negotiations on the legislation.

"Working with President Biden, the House and Senate have been crafting bipartisan legislation to bolster American manufacturing, fix our supply chains, and invest in the next generation of cutting-edge technology research," the two said. "There are still a number of important unresolved issues.

Contributing: Ledyard King, Bart Jansen, Joey Garrison, Rebecca Morin

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Congress: Debt ceiling, funding, other issues to tackle before year-end

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