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Lawmakers fear January mess as Congress fails to address mounting crises

<i>Getty Images</i><br/>Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday pushed negotiations over the larger national security package with aid for Ukraine and Israel to early next year.
Getty Images
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday pushed negotiations over the larger national security package with aid for Ukraine and Israel to early next year.

By Lauren Fox and Manu Raju, CNN

Senators bolted for the holidays Wednesday — and left behind a mountain of problems for Congress to tackle immediately in January as domestic and international crises mount.

In the new year, Congress will have to figure out how to fund the government in a matter of days and avoid a shutdown for part of the federal government. Fewer than two weeks after that, another shutdown looms for the rest of the government.

Plus, there are deep partisan divisions over how to handle the crises at the southern border, which Republicans insist must be resolved first before the US can come to the aid of two allies — Ukraine and Israel — who are at war.

Then, there are the internal divisions within each party. House and Senate Republican leaders are at sharp odds over their spending strategy. And a growing number of Democrats want conditions placed on aid to Israel and money for displaced Palestinians amid the humanitarian crisis in Gaza — amid a growing rift with the White House over Israel’s prosecution of the war.

The coming storm has lawmakers from both parties fearful that the historically unproductive 118th Congress will plunge the country deeper into crisis.

“Oh, God, yes,” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat, said when asked if he was fearful for what looms in January.

Some believe the crises will be averted – somehow – but were hardly confident.

“Normally, at the end of the day, somehow, some way, we get to the next step,” said Sen. Peter Welch, a Vermont Democrat. “But, that’s hardly a prescription for full-scale confidence.”

And others were blunt about how they viewed the 118th Congress. Asked if he believed the 118th Congress had been productive, Republican Rep. Tim Burchett of Tennessee said bluntly: “No.”

House and Senate clash ahead of shutdown deadline

When lawmakers return in the new year, there will be nine legislative days to avoid a partial government shutdown by January 19. The second shutdown deadline for the rest of the federal government is just weeks later on February 2. And the GOP-led House and Democratic-led Senate have no path yet to resolve the differences.

Behind the scenes, appropriations and leadership staff have been trying to find an agreement on spending levels for next year, but sources involved in those talks say the negotiations have not yielded any breakthroughs.

House Speaker Mike Johnson has made clear that he won’t pursue a short-term patch to keep the government open – so there’s growing expectation that the House GOP leadership will opt to pursue a full-year extension of government funding through the end of next September. But that plan that has already prompted sharp pushback from top Senate Republicans.

“A full-year CR would be extremely damaging,” said Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the top Republican on the Appropriations Committee, referring to a stop-gap measure known as a continuing resolution, or CR. “It would end up costing taxpayers more money, it would lead to 330 projects and programs at the Department of Defense being put on hold.”

Mitch McConnell, the Senate GOP leader, raised similar concerns at a Tuesday news conference.

“A CR is simply unacceptable for a year,” McConnell told reporters. “It’s devastating particularly for defense, and we’ve got all of these wars going on. So we need to reach an agreement on the topline and get about getting an outcome as soon as possible.”

But Republican leaders in the House are under pressure from their right flank to pursue even deeper across-the-board cuts in a stopgap resolution – a move that will almost certainly prompt White House and Senate Democratic opposition as well.

“You are going to have a huge fight over spending both in January and in February,” South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the GOP Senate whip, told reporters.

The differences between the two chambers are stark. The Senate, on a bipartisan basis, has largely followed the $1.59 trillion spending caps outlined in the debt ceiling law and an agreement to reprogram other savings – a deal cut between then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy and the White House earlier this year – with an additional $13.7 billion funding for defense and other emergencies.

The House, meanwhile, advanced bills through committee at much lower levels and passed the bills they could with just GOP votes – aiming to set spending levels at $1.5 trillion with all of the cuts going to non-defense programs. Those differences remain, and aides say that could raise the prospect for a yearlong continuing resolution, which appropriators warn would have major consequences for defense and non-defense programs because of automatic cuts that would be triggered as a result of a provision included in the debt ceiling law.

Some senior House Republicans are worried about the prospects of a stopgap as well.

“A CR is really bad news,” said Rep. Tom Cole, a top Republican appropriator from Oklahoma. “It’s bad news for governance. It’s a bad signal to our adversaries overseas, and it’s going to be a big cut in defense. It is very possible and in some ways, it is even the most likely (option). But it should not be the desired outcome, and it’s not something I know (Johnson) wants. He would much prefer a negotiated deal.”

Others were at a loss at how any of the issues will get resolved – with so little time left on the calendar to avoid a crisis.

“I am not worried about a shutdown, but I am worried about how we are going to do it,” West Virginia Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito said of government funding.

Rep. Patrick McHenry, a North Carolina Republican who helped negotiate the debt ceiling deal that set spending caps for 2024 and 2025, argued that the House and Senate need to just follow the law that was already passed. But if Johnson pursues that route, he’ll face sharp pushback from his right flank, already angry that he agreed to a short-term spending deal to punt the funding fight until early 2024 – a similar dynamic that led to McCarthy’s ouster.

“The topline is determined,” McHenry said. “It’s determined in law. We have an agreement with the White House. All that is set, but executing that takes time. It takes weeks, and we have burned a lot of weeks and that is a huge mistake.”

Prospects uncertain for emergency aid package

Despite around-the-clock negotiations over the last few weeks, a bipartisan group of senators, administration officials and leadership aides didn’t clinch an agreement on the border security package before Christmas, an essential step in injecting more aid into Ukraine. On Tuesday, McConnell and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer released a joint statement pledging that “the Senate will not let these national security challenges go unanswered.”

But when lawmakers return in January, the presidential election will be in full swing and Donald Trump, the GOP front-runner who has provoked his party to support cutting funding for Ukraine, may be well on his way to winning the nomination. Plus, Trump could very well rail on any deal cut on immigration as insufficient – a prospect that could make it harder to win GOP support in Congress for any bipartisan plan.

“That could happen,” Thune acknowledged when asked about Trump’s potential opposition. “But I think in the end, as long as we get what we believe are the right policies in place … hopefully we can get the necessary votes in the Senate and in the House to move something, irrespective of what others may say about it.”

Biden administration officials have been warning for months that the funding for Ukraine is almost dried up, with about $1 billion left to help the Ukrainians and another billion in defense surveillance funds. After that, they’ve warned the US will have exhausted its options to send money and weapons to Ukraine.

But even if senators can find agreement on the border, there is no guarantee Johnson – who has already warned that the package must contain robust border security measures similar to what was in the House-passed immigration bill that Democrats have rejected – would be willing to put such a package on the floor. Some on the hard right say the base will rebel if Johnson did agree to move on a Senate compromise to fund Ukraine in exchange for new border policies.

“I think it’s so insulting to the American people to pair our border security to Ukraine’s border,” GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, a close Trump ally, told CNN. “That’s completely wrong. Our border should come first and foremost.”

Yet the White House’s willingness to embrace more restrictions at the southern border – along with potentially tighter asylum laws and greater authority to deport undocumented migrants – has prompted sharp pushback from the left.

“I just think this is a mistake. It’s not going to solve the situation at the border. It’s just reverting back to draconian policies that are going to cause more chaos,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Washington state Democrat and the leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told CNN. “Ultimately, it’s going to throw immigrants under the bus.”

But even if the immigration issues are resolved, Democrats will be under pressure to add more humanitarian assistance for Palestinians – a move that could prompt pushback from the right.

Sen. Brian Schatz, a Hawaii Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said the party is engaged in talks about placing conditions on Israel’s conduct of the war – another complex issue that is gaining steam among Democrats but already generating stiff GOP opposition.

“We are going to need to have a compromise with the House, so I don’t know what is possible,” Schatz said. “But I do think it is fair for members of Congress to ask Israel to conduct this war in a manner that is consistent with United States foreign policy and with the international law of armed conflict. The truth is every federal appropriations has conditions. The question is what are the conditions for this federal appropriation.”

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