Congress Returns to Session—Here Are the Thorny Issues on Its Plate

Congress Returns to Session—Here Are the Thorny Issues on Its Plate

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The near-evenly divided House and Senate resume their two-year experiment back in Washington at the halfway point on Jan. 8.

Democrats hold a two-seat majority in the Senate, while Republicans have just a six-seat advantage in the House—a combination that has thwarted progress on nearly every piece of significant legislation in the 118th Congress.

During its first session, this Congress proved incapable of passing the 12 statutorily required annual spending bills, agreeing on long-term funding for the nation’s air traffic system, or deciding the fate of a controversial 9/11-era surveillance law.

Now, with as many as 10,000 people illegally entering the country each day, wars raging in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and a potential government shutdown just days away, Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) must work quickly to resolve thorny issues that have defied solution for months, in some cases decades.

Here’s what’s in store for Congress upon its return.

Budget, Border, Ukraine Tangle

The security of the southern border, U.S. policy on Ukraine, and domestic spending for the current fiscal year are now knotted into a single, tangled ball of yarn.

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President Joe Biden requested $106 billion in supplemental spending, primarily to aid U.S. allies, in the fall. Additional military aid for Ukraine accounted for $45 billion of that request.

House Republicans quickly severed the various portions of the request so that each could be considered separately.

They approved additional aid for Ukraine but included the provisions of H.R. 2, the Secure the Border Act, in the bill.

Mr. Johnson informed senators in October that the House wouldn’t send additional aid to Ukraine unless the Senate adopted those border security provisions.

Senate negotiators attempted to work out a deal for two months—and continue to do so—but no agreement has been reached.

The big sticking points for Republicans are the “Remain in Mexico” policy, which they want reinstated, and changes to the process for seeking asylum. The GOP is keen to end the practice of “catch-and-release.” The implementation of E-Verify, a nationwide system for verifying a person’s eligibility to work in the United States, is also an issue.

On Jan. 3, Mr. Johnson led a congressional delegation to the southern border, where he reiterated the demand for action on the border.

Other GOP members chimed in with a threat to withhold funding for some federal operations—a partial shutdown—if the border isn’t sealed, either by executive order or Senate action.

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Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (R-La.) listen during remarks at an event at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Dec. 12, 202. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) suggested that if President Biden won’t take executive action to stem the flow of illegal immigration, this sentence should be added to any “must-pass” legislation: “No money can be used to process or release into the country any new migrants.”

Rep. Beth Van Duyne (R-Texas) went further, telling reporters: “None of us want to shut down the government. But we all recognize the fact that every single penny that we are giving to Homeland Security at this point isn’t being used to secure our border, is not being used to increase our national security, but it’s doing the exact opposite.”

Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) informed colleagues on Jan. 2 that he wouldn’t vote for any domestic or foreign funding bill until the government secures the border.

That rhetoric hasn’t been repeated by Mr. Johnson, who in a CBS interview that aired on Jan. 7 said the House GOP wouldn’t shut down the government over the border issue. The speaker appears to be intent on working with the Senate to arrive at a deal that both chambers will accept.

Adding urgency to the matter, Shalanda Young, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, informed Congress in December 2023 that previously authorized funds for Ukraine would be exhausted by the end of 2023.

Possible Government Shutdowns

If the border crisis is somehow resolved in the next couple weeks, Congress could still face the risk of a partial government shutdown this month.

Unable to agree on spending levels for fiscal year 2024, which began on Oct. 1, 2023, Congress has twice extended funding through continuing spending resolutions (CR). The latest CR expires in two stages, on Jan. 19 and on Feb. 2.

Neither chamber has passed all 12 bills, and not one has been reconciled between the two chambers through a conference committee.

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A U.S. Border Patrol agent detains illegal immigrants near the U.S.–Mexico border in Eagle Pass, Texas, on Dec. 19, 2023. (John Moore/Getty Images)

After considerable delay, congressional leaders on Jan. 7 finally reached an agreement on topline spending figures to fund the federal government for fiscal year 2024. The figures largely reflect those agreed upon in last year’s debt limit deal—codified in the bipartisan Fiscal Responsibility Act—struck between the White House and House Republicans.

“The topline constitutes $1.590 trillion for [fiscal 2024]—the statutory levels of the Fiscal Responsibility Act. That includes $886 billion for defense and $704 billion for nondefense,” Mr. Johnson wrote in a “Dear Colleagues” letter on Jan. 7.

Congress now has less than two weeks to pass the first batch of spending bills or pass a third CR to prevent a partial government shutdown. Then they’ll have another two weeks before the second deadline puts them in the same position.

Mr. Johnson has said he won’t consider passing another CR this year.

Also, a provision included in the FRA will trigger a 1 percent, across-the-board spending cut on May 1 if Congress hasn’t yet approved full-year funding.

Stalled Aid for Israel

Additional military aid for Israel is also caught up in the standoff between the House and Senate. This is less controversial than support for Ukraine, but Democrats and Republicans are sparring over how to pay for the assistance.

House Republicans approved Israel’s $14 billion portion of President Biden’s supplemental funding request in the fall. However, they stipulated that the funds had to be taken from money allocated for the hiring of additional IRS agents.

That’s a hard no for Senate Democrats, who want an up-or-down vote on the entire supplemental aid package.

“We cannot send the message to our allies or to the world that America only stands by some of its allies, that our word is only good some of the time,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) told Senate colleagues on Nov. 14.

The Senate rejected a motion to consider support for Israel separately from the request for Ukraine.

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Israeli soldiers fire mortar near the Gaza Strip in southern Israel on Jan. 3, 2024. (Maja Hitij/Getty Images)

More Impeachment Action

The House is pursuing two impeachment investigations. Both are picking up steam this month.

The inquiry into President Biden’s business dealings during his tenure as vice president was opened on Sept. 12, 2023. Mr. Johnson formalized the inquiry through a vote by the House on Dec. 14, 2023.

The investigation centers on possible influence peddling by President Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, through his business dealings with foreign entities, and whether the president knew about and profited from it.

The younger Biden was subpoenaed to give a deposition in a closed-door session of the House Oversight and Judiciary committees on Dec. 16, 2023.

He refused to appear, saying he would testify only in an open session.

Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer (R-Ky.) is preparing a contempt of Congress resolution for Hunter Biden, which the committee will consider on Jan. 10.

Both the House Oversight and Judiciary committees are expected to release a report on their rationale for the resolution prior to the floor vote.

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Attorney Abbe Lowell and Hunter Biden prepare to speak to reporters outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Dec. 13, 2023. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The House Homeland Security Committee will hold its first hearing on impeachment proceedings against Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on Jan. 8, for his alleged failure to execute the law related to securing U.S. borders.

A resolution to impeach Mr. Mayorkas was introduced into the House in 2023, but the chamber declined to act on it and instead referred it to the Homeland Security Committee.

Chairman Rep. Mark Green (R-Tenn.) said his committee has finished its five-phase investigation and is ready to move forward.

“The greatest domestic threat to national security and the safety of the American people is Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas,” Mr. Green told reporters on Jan. 3. “He, through his policies, has defied and subverted the laws passed by the United States.”

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas depart after a press conference in Washington on Dec. 6, 2023. (Samuel Corum/Getty Images)
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas depart after a press conference in Washington on Dec. 6, 2023. (Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

Congress faces additional self-imposed deadlines throughout the spring related to matters that it delayed dealing with in 2023.

It has until March 8 to address the reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration, which comes up for renewal every five years. The price tag on that legislation is about $107 billion, and the previous law expired on Dec. 21, 2023.

Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act also expired at the end of 2023. Congress put off considering reauthorization of the law by temporarily extending it to mid-April.

Section 702 allows warrantless searches of electronic communications by some foreigners that include texts, conversations, and emails from Americans. National security hawks want to keep the law intact. Others, concerned about government overreach and invasion of privacy, want it scrapped or overhauled.

Consideration of the Farm Bill, a nearly $100 billion omnibus spending bill that covers a wide range of agriculture-related programs, was delayed for an entire year. The previous version expired on Sept. 30, 2023.

Also, the first statutory deadline for determining spending levels for 2025 occurs on Feb. 5, when President Biden must send his budget request to Congress for the next fiscal year.

Zachary Stieber and Charlotte Cuthbertson contributed to this report. 

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