- Republicans have to tackle a handful of must-pass legislation in the lame duck session or risk not being able to keep President Trump’s word on his campaign promises.
- Congress has to fund the government and reauthorize the Farm Bill, or risk a partial shutdown.
- There are also a number of key bipartisan issues facing resistance from leadership and the White House that senators are looking to push through in the final weeks of 2018.
WASHINGTON – During the lame duck session, the period after the election but before the new Congress convenes in January, lawmakers typically have a long list of legislation they want to push through in the final two months of work.
This year’s lame duck session has a handful of things Republicans want to get to President Donald Trump’s desk before Democrats take back the majority control they earned on Election Day. But first, Republicans will have to pass the remaining funding to avoid another partial government shutdown – and even that is tied to highly controversial proposals.
While funding the government is must-pass legislation, many Republicans see the end of the year push as the final chance to secure the funds to build Trump’s long-promised wall along the US-Mexico border.
To make matters worse, Trump has repeatedly threatened to veto a funding bill if it does not have money for his border wall included.
“Could happen, yeah. Over border security,” Trump told reporters on Thanksgiving when asked about the prospect of a government shutdown. “The wall is just a part of border security – a very important part. Probably the most important part. But could there be a shutdown? There certainly could. And it will be about border security, of which the wall is a part.”
The threats from Trump to cause a government shutdown over wall funding are nothing new, but Republicans often fear finding an agreeable path forward until Trump gives his blessing. And at the current moment, the House and Senate funding bills look very different, with the House plan offering $US5 billion to beef up border security compared to $US1.6 billion in the Senate bill.
Last minute initiatives
A major criminal justice reform proposal is being considered as well, but has also been the cause of a lot of Republican infighting over the bill’s specifics.
While proponents of the First Step Act want to see it passed before the Congress disbands at the end of the year – and Trump himself has pushed for the bill to be considered – Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has remained hesistant to move anything forward out of fear the Republicans opposed to it could create divisions in the conference.
Spearheading the White House’s effort to move the bill has been Trump adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, who also attended the Senate Republicans’ closed door lunch on Tuesday alongside Vice President Mike Pence in an effort to cultivate support.
According to multiple senators in the room, Kushner did not speak, but Pence did, offering vigorous support for the bill.
When lawmakers emerged, McConnell told reporters that Republicans “had an extensive discussion” about criminal justice reform. In addition, McConnell said they would begin whipping the conference to gauge support for “not only the substance, but the timing of moving forward with [the legislation].”
A farm bill reauthorization hangs in the balance as well, with major differences between the House and Senate versions creating a jam.
The House version wants work requirements for able-bodied individuals receiving food stamps. While Trump and most Republicans back that proposal, the Senate’s version does not have it included, making it particularly difficult to get through when you also need to pass a 60-vote threshold with only 51 Republicans.
Controversial legislation hanging in the balance
The fate of US support for Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in Yemen makes its way to the Senate floor this week, with many Republicans and Democrats looking to invoke the War Powers Resolution and offer their first rebuke to the Trump administration for its tepid response to the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Both Defence Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are briefing senators on the US-Saudi relationship on Wednesday, but some have find this unsatisfactory and are looking for further answers from CIA Director Gina Haspel.
“I want somebody from the intel committee to come debrief the Congress about what the gang of eight and the president have heard about [Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman],” Sen. Lindsey Graham told reporters on Tuesday. “The strategic relationship is important, but the conduct of butchering a man in your consulate violates every norm of civilized society. And what makes the world a more dangerous place is when there are no more rules left – when America looks the other way.”
Graham, who is not backing the effort to invoke the War Powers Resolution, also noted Trump’s response to the killing of Khashoggi, saying that while he understands the White House role is about a “strategic relationship,” there is more at stake than just business.
“The difference I have is I think to give MBS a pass if he clearly is complicit – if – is a huge mistake for regional stability, sets us back in terms of our ability to hold the world together, and takes our voice off the table in a credible fashion.”
Another pressing issue, which has created headaches for McConnell, is retiring Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake’s pledge to not support judicial confirmations until he receives a floor vote for the bipartisan bill aimed at putting protections in place in the event Trump tries to fire Robert Mueller, who is heading the special counsel tasked with investigating Russian interference in the 2016 elections.
McConnell has the ultimate say on what makes it to the floor and has signalled he would block any attempts to bring the special counsel protections to a vote. But Republicans who are uneasy with Flake’s tactics have showed some signs of breaking.
During an interview with conservative talk radio host Hugh Hewitt early Tuesday morning, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn acknowledged the Mueller protection bill could potentially get a vote in the coming weeks.
“There is a possibility we will have a vote on the Mueller, so-called Mueller protection bill, but I think there really is some serious Constitutional issues on that, and I certainly don’t support it,” Cornyn said.
It is still a long shot, and Republicans can still confirm the large slate of Trump’s judicial nominations without Flake’s support. But it certainly makes it difficult having to bring in Pence for tie-breakers over and over again.