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As Congress returns to work, a daunting to-do list awaits

Capitol Hill was quiet last week, as members returned home for their Thanksgiving break. As NBC News reported, that tranquility is poised to come to a rather dramatic end, as Congress confronts a series of deadlines.

Congress will confront a packed agenda when it returns from Thanksgiving recess, from facing hard deadlines to keep the federal government running to passing President Joe Biden’s $1.7 trillion safety net and climate legislation.

For those who enjoy Capitol Hill excitement — which is to say, people like me — the next five weeks will be among the most hectic of the year. Consider lawmakers’ to-do list:

Government funding: Though the deadline hasn’t generated a lot of political chatter, funding for government operations expires this Friday at midnight. That’s the bad news. The good news is that no one seems to think a government shutdown is likely, and we’ll likely see a stopgap spending measure (called a “continuing resolution” or “CR”).

Debt ceiling: Originally, officials agreed to a debt-ceiling extension through Dec. 3, but the strength of the economic recovery ended up pushing the default deadline to Dec. 15. No one seems able to say with confidence what’ll happen between now and then, though Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell recently told reporters, “[W]e’ll figure out how to avoid default. We always do.”

The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA): Over the course of the last six decades, Congress has passed a defense package every year. The NDAA is partly a spending bill, but it also includes a great many policy provisions, including how the military addresses sexual assault allegations. The House passed its version in September, but the bill has been delayed in the Senate for a variety of reasons, including efforts to link it to the US Innovation and Competition Act, questions about repealing earlier war resolutions, and the overall size of military spending. Senators expect the bill to pass before end of the calendar year.

Build Back Better: The Democratic domestic investment package recently passed the House, and Senate leaders intend to pass their revised version of the legislation by Christmas. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia recently said he was on board with that schedule, but he’s reportedly planning to push the debate into the new year.

Nominations: The United States still has only four ambassadors to foreign countries, and key national security posts throughout the executive branch don’t have Senate-confirmed nominees. Don’t be surprised if Democratic leaders try to force the issue in the coming weeks.

Freedom to Vote Act: As democracy scholars plead with senators to rescue democracy, the Freedom to Vote Act faces an uncertain future. On the one hand, it has 50 votes and a vice president who would gladly break a tie in its favor. On the other hand, a small handful of Senate Democrats are prioritizing the filibuster rule over democracy itself, indifferent to the consequences. Despite the crowded calendar, some kind of resolution on this issue is still a possibility before year’s end.

Looking at the schedule, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin told NPR two weeks ago, “[W]e’ve got to buckle down…. It’s going to be a busy December, but we’ve got to get the job done.”

Watch this space.

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