lame-duck session

Lame-Duck Session Begins With Low Expectations

They’re back, for a while at least. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Congress returns this week for a so-called “lame-duck session” prior to implementation of the 2020 election results and the swearing in of the 117th Congress on or around January 3 (which falls on a Sunday in 2021).

The elections did not generate a massive change in the balance of power in Congress. Democrats surprisingly lost a chunk of their majority in the House but still have an opportunity to take control of the Senate if they can achieve two runoff victories in Georgia on January 5. The big flip, of course, was in the control of the White House, but Donald Trump’s refusal to concede defeat (which could go on until the end of time), will cast a pall over the lame-duck session, particularly if the Republican Party continues to back up his bizarre claim that he is preparing for a second term.

In the meantime, Congress has some unfinished business to wrap up. This week, the focus is on leadership elections for next year. But no drama is expected here — even among House Democrats, whose losses incited the usual media-inflated intraparty quarreling. As Politico observed, Pelosi and her deputies have managed (unless something really unexpected happens literally overnight) to elude collateral damage to their positions.

For the last decade, Pelosi has had the same post-election routine: swiftly quashing whispers of an insurrection as a handful of members look to end her long tenure as leader. But this year, Pelosi is poised to enter another — and possibly final term — as speaker, with her position as safe as ever despite losing at least six net seats after predicting they’d expand their majority.

That could be because Pelosi previously headed off a coup effort in 2018 by pledging to step down by 2022. In any event, what you see is what you’ll get in terms of the top leadership in both parties and in both congressional chambers, the Senate lineup having been essentially frozen by the close results and the January runoffs.

Other than leadership elections, the to-do list for the lame-duck session revolves around spending. In late September, as the fiscal year 2020 came to a close, Congress passed — and Trump signed — a stopgap spending bill that will expire on December 11. Since then, appropriators in both Houses have been beavering away on the 12 bills that would fund the federal government until the end of next September — and have made considerable progress toward an “omnibus” appropriations bill that could be passed in early December. Roll Call reports:

Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., sounded an optimistic note, saying he and Pelosi had a “good conversation” Wednesday about trying to pass an omnibus…. Shelby said he and Pelosi are “probably 90 percent together on” the 12 fiscal 2021 appropriations bills he posted last week.

But in order to reach agreement, House Democrats would likely have to drop much of the $233 billion in pandemic emergency spending added to their bills, withdraw various funding restrictions on Trump administration priorities and allow $1 billion or more to be allocated for a southern border wall. Shelby’s bills do not include any emergency pandemic funds, but some virus relief would probably be included in a compromise.

The remaining areas of disagreement and the limited timeframe for negotiations (the lame-duck session is currently scheduled to conclude on December 10, and Congress will take a break for Thanksgiving as well) are leading most observers to predict another stopgap spending bill punting the talks into the next session. Both parties, Roll Call notes, have incentives (other than convenience) for such a delay:

Republicans would not necessarily be upset if appropriations were kicked into next year, delaying Biden’s other priorities. And Pelosi pointedly told reporters Friday that Democrats’ leverage will be enhanced once Biden is in the Oval Office.

However congressional leaders decide to resolve the appropriations issue, by an omnibus or a stopgap, there is likely to be some sort of COVID-19 relief (and stimulus) measure attached. But as The Hill reports, it’s not like the two parties are any closer together on what that might look like, despite many sounding alarms about a resurgence in the pandemic and the likely economic fallout:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) view the $2.2 trillion bill that passed the House in early October as the “starting point” for any year-end negotiations. They also spoke with Biden on the phone late last week, where they reiterated that they want a deal on coronavirus relief this year that would include things like more help for state and local governments. 

But McConnell, who is taking over the reins from the administration in any negotiations with Democrats, says Republicans want a bill similar to the $500 billion previously blocked by Senate Democrats, underscoring the deep gap that remains even at the macro level over the price tag of the bill. 

McConnell’s buzzwords for the kind of skinny stimulus he and his troops (many of whom are preparing to return to the fiscal-hawk rhetoric they largely abandoned when their party held the White House) prefer are “targeted” and “focused,” and, in his typically unhelpful way, Trump over the weekend called on Congress to enact a “big and focused” COVID measure.

In this environment, something small is more likely as the parties prepare for the next session, which is probably bad news for those hoping for a second $1200 stimulus check. That was left out of McConnell’s last pre-election proposal, and without an imminent election to pressure Congress to make many millions of voters happy with direct payments, it’s doubtful it will happen until next year at the earliest.

Lame-Duck Session Begins With Low Expectations