The urgent to-do list awaiting Congress in January

Mike Johnson, in a dark suit and glasses, talks to a throng of reporters with microphones and cameras in a hallway of the Capitol.
House Speaker Mike Johnson talks to reporters after meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy at the US Capitol on December 12, 2023. | Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Everything Congress has procrastinated on and needs to do in the new year, explained.

It has not been a very productive year for the House, even when it wasn’t outright humiliating for its dwindling Republican majority. The body passed historically little in the way of legislation in 2023, defenestrated one speaker and elected another after almost a month of chaos, and expelled its first member in more than two decades.

What Congress didn’t do, though, was strike a long-term funding solution to keep the government open, or pass a supplementary appropriations bill to keep money flowing to Ukraine and Israel. And with money and time running out, lawmakers will have to shake off holiday inertia and move quickly in the new year to get those priorities finished.

Here are four big questions about Congress’s January slate.

What exactly does Congress have to get done — and by when?

The first major priority Congress will be confronted with is keeping the government open. In September and again in November this year, Congress passed a pair of continuing resolutions, or CRs, to prevent imminent government shutdowns, but time is once again pressing.

The November shutdown, as Vox’s Li Zhou has previously reported, used an unusual two-part structure, funding part of the government through January 19 and the rest through February 2. That means lawmakers have just nine legislative days before five areas of government — transportation, housing, energy, agriculture, and veterans’ affairs — run out of money.

According to CNN, House Republican leadership has little interest in another short-term funding punt, but a full-year CR will face bipartisan opposition in the Senate, setting up an impasse — and there’s also no sign of agreement on funding levels in a new appropriations bill.

Resolving that impasse can be thought of as Congress’s only firm deadline — if it doesn’t happen by midnight on January 19, a partial government shutdown begins, and additional agencies will shut down two weeks later, in February.

It’s not the only thing that needs to get done quickly, though: While funding measures for Ukraine and Israel don’t have a specific date attached, there’s still strategic pressure to get them done soon. Both countries are actively at war, and the Biden administration has indicated it will run out of money for Ukraine this month.

While there’s a great deal of bipartisan support behind aid for Israel despite a mounting civilian death toll and catastrophic human suffering in Gaza, support for Ukraine has continued to fray, particularly among Republicans, as the two-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion approaches in February with no end in sight and little visible military progress.

How did Congress get into this jam in the first place?

The biggest reason that Congress finds itself once again in a time crunch is its House Republican majority. After negotiating the first of two CRs in September 2023, former Speaker Kevin McCarthy was ejected from the speakership by an internal revolt. The party then chewed through multiple replacement speaker candidates, and lots of clock, before landing on the current speaker, Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana.

As Vox’s Ellen Ioanes explained at the time, “For the rest of the country, a fight over the speakership takes away from the work of passing a long-term funding deal, as well as negotiating the future of aid to Ukraine.” That fight ended up taking 22 days, giving Johnson little time in his new chair to do more than kick the can down the road with November’s CR — and the time that bought him is running out.

Now, Johnson is left with the same majority that turned on McCarthy for striking a deal, minus the seat vacated by the expulsion of former Rep. George Santos (R-NY) and with more vacancies on the horizon — including that of McCarthy, whose resignation will take effect December 31. And many of his most hardline members want far deeper spending cuts than would likely be acceptable to the Democratic majority in the Senate, or to the White House, further complicating negotiations. Some of those members, in the far-right House Freedom Caucus, already condemned Johnson’s previous CR, which ultimately passed with far more Democratic support. Johnson may need to do the same this time around, but such a maneuver could put him at risk of a McCarthy-style ouster.

Why does Congress’s inability to pass a regular funding bill matter?

Continuing resolutions are often the lesser of two evils versus a partial government shutdown, and they can be a genuinely useful measure to win a few more days or weeks for the legislative process to work itself out. But they’re still not a good way to govern: As the name suggests, the bills only maintain previous funding levels, and over the long term, that poses a challenge for the functioning of the federal government.

Specifically, inflation means that a CR may be insufficient even to fully fund the programs of the previous year — and it certainly lacks money for new programs, or existing programs where the funding demands have increased. All of those impacts would be compounded by a full-year CR, which Johnson could propose in the new year (though its passage would be uncertain, to the say the least).

In 2022, the Pentagon warned in no uncertain terms about the potential impacts of a year-long CR, which Navy chief of operations Adm. Michael Gilday described at the time as “completely new territory that we have not dealt with before that will have significant impacts across our military.” Such a measure could have similar impacts across government.

This month, the Pentagon issued a similar caution. At a December event with the Atlantic Council, according to a Defense Department news story, Adm. Christopher Grady noted that “continuing [resolutions] are not where we want to be. We need stable and predictable funding.”

How does immigration factor in?

Adding to the tangled bundle of congressional priorities in January is immigration. Though frequently considered one of Capitol Hill’s most intractable issues, congressional Republicans have seized on the Biden administration’s request for more Ukraine funding as a leverage point, and hope to secure limitations on asylum and quicker deportations, among other policy changes.

The exact parameters of such a bill are still unclear, but it’s looking more likely than it once might have. As Vox’s Andrew Prokop reported this month, the Biden administration is concerned that the border represents a political vulnerability, and as a result, a deal with Senate Republicans could emerge in the new year.

Such a deal would link Ukraine funding and legislation focused on immigration and the border. President Joe Biden has also argued for linking Ukraine and Israel aid, which means all three priorities could advance together — or not at all.

A bipartisan immigration bill would be complicated for Democrats, both politically and morally. As Prokop writes:

Cutting an immigration restriction deal would be a major shift for the “in this house, we believe no human is illegal” party. It would sink the hopes of many of the millions of people coming to the US to seek a better life for themselves and their families, often braving a treacherous journey. And it would cause immense controversy among progressives and activists on the left.

But the urgency of Ukraine aid, in the eyes of the White House, could smooth its path nonetheless. Though Biden lambasted congressional Republicans for “playing chicken with our national security, holding Ukraine’s funding hostage to their extreme partisan border policies” in a speech earlier this month, he also noted that “any disruption in our ability to supply Ukraine clearly strengthens Putin’s position. We’ve run out of money to be able to do that, in terms of authorization.”

A previous package linking all three priorities failed to advance in the Senate in early December, and any deal would face additional hurdles in the House, but bipartisan interest in Ukraine, Israel, and the border means a deal could still materialize.

If it does, it will join government funding in what is shaping up to be a busy January on Capitol Hill.

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