Democrats are planning for a busy three weeks during the last session of the 117th Congress, with a series of legislative aspirations set for considerations as the party prepares for the end of single-party rule.
Republicans are now confirmed to have taken the House, though Democrats will hold the Senate.
If current numbers in still-uncalled races hold, Republicans will enter the 118th Congress with a scant majority, putting an end to the unified Democrat-led government of the past two years.
As they prepare to enter the minority for the first time since 2019, Democrats are hoping to make a few final legislative pushes in the final eight legislative days remaining.
According to the House calendar, lawmakers will assemble one final time beginning on Nov. 29. The final votes of the 117th Congress will take place on Dec. 15.
A senior House Republican aide opined in a comment to The Epoch Times that he expects additional legislative days to be added as several key bills are still being hammered out.
“We’ll probably have to stay longer in December,” the aide said, adding, “Recess starts the 16th but I doubt it.”
“Let us savor and draw strength from this time at home with our loved ones as we prepare to meet the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead,” Pelosi wrote. “And let us be unified as a Caucus, as we prepare for the future.”
Here are some bills expected to make progress during the final lame duck session of this Congress.
Senate Same Sex Marriage Bill
On the top of Democrats’ priority list is the passage of the Respect for Marriage Act.
That bill, which Democrats pushed in response to the Supreme Court’s (SCOTUS) decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, would codify same-sex and interracial marriage as a federally-protected right.
The measure was expected to be taken up for final passage by the Senate on Nov. 17 but the legislative day, the last before Thanksgiving recess, came and went with no final vote on the measure.
That delay came after the bill managed to advance past its first procedural hurdle with the support of 12 Republicans.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the same day that passing the bill would be “one of the more significant accomplishments of this Senate to date” but did not explain the delay.
On Nov. 28, the Senate is expected to vote for an end to debate and pass the bill, which President Joe Biden is expected to sign.
12 Republicans joined Democrats to advance the legislation, including:
- Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.)
- Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.)
- Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W. Va.)
- Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine)
- Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa)
- Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.)
- Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska)
- Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio)
- Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska)
- Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah)
- Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.)
- Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.)
These members are expected to vote in favor of the measure when it comes to the floor, meaning it should have an easy path to the president’s desk.
The bill was proposed over the summer after SCOTUS voted to strike down the precedent set down in Roe v. Wade, a 1973 case that declared abortion a constitutionally-protected right.
That decision was based on an expansive interpretation of the Constitution, and specifically the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. The expansive interpretation was first used in an earlier case, Griswold v. Connecticut, which ruled that the Constitution created “penumbras” of protection that granted rights not explicitly defined by the Constitution.
The Griswold standard played a key role in a series of SCOTUS decisions touching on social issues, including not only Roe v. Wade but also Lawrence v. Texas, which ruled that sodomy is a constitutionally-protected right, and Obergefell v. Hodges, which ruled that same-sex civil union is a federal right.
SCOTUS insisted in its majority opinion in Dobbs that these other 14th Amendment decisions were not in danger of being overturned. However, Democrats were alarmed by Justice Clarence Thomas’s concurring opinion, in which he called for reconsideration of other 14th Amendment precedents.
The Respect for Marriage Act is one of a series of bills passed by the Democrat-led House over the summer in response to this decision.
Biden To Push ‘Assault Weapon’ Ban
Biden said that he will encourage Democrats to use the lame-duck session to advance legislation that would ban so-called “assault weapons.”
In June, following a mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that left 19 children and two adults dead, Democrats passed a package of gun control bills dubbed the “Protecting Our Kids” Act. The measures failed to garner enough support in the Senate.
However, Republicans led by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) did ultimately agree to a different gun control bill. The key proposals in the package included an end to the so-called “boyfriend loophole,” federal funding for controversial “red flag” laws, intensified background checks, and funding for expanded mental health services.
The bill was passed through the Senate, clearing the 60-vote filibuster threshold, on June 23.
The House later approved the bill, which was signed into law by Biden.
However, that bill was far from ideal for Democrats, who have long pushed for a ban on “assault weapons.” The term is usually applied by gun control advocates to military-style semiautomatic rifles, but many struggle to explicitly define the term.
Now, Biden says he’ll push for the Congress to consider banning assault weapons in its last session.
Such a measure is all but certain to fail in the Senate, Democrats acknowledge. Even Cornyn, who was instrumental in the success of the Senate gun control bill, has said that he is not open to further expansions of federal gun control.
Speaking on Thanksgiving Day, Biden called it “ridiculous” that red flag laws—which allow courts to seize firearms from citizens in a process that critics say undercuts due process protections of their Second Amendment rights—were not in force across broad swaths of the country.
Biden also lambasted the fact that Americans are legally permitted to purchase semiautomatic weapons.
“It’s just sick. It has no, no social redeeming value. Zero. None. Not a single, solitary rationale for it except profit for the gun manufacturers,” Biden contended.
Those in opposition have said that the bill will only prevent law-abiding gun owners from equipping themselves to protect against criminals who will find a way to access such assault weapons anyway.
The president vowed to “try to get rid of assault weapons” in the lame duck session if he can find the votes.
“I’m going to do it whenever I—I got to make that assessment as I get in and start counting the votes,” he said.
While a normal piece of legislation would be subject to the 60-vote filibuster threshold in the Senate, Democrats could try a parliamentary trick by passing a measure using the reconciliation process.
Bills passed under this process are immune from Senate filibuster.
As Democrats were putting forward a flurry of normal legislative proposals in the wake of the Uvalde shooting, Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) proposed a reconciliation bill that would place a 1,000 percent tax on a litany of semiautomatic rifles.
Such a move would need the approval of the Senate parliamentarian, however. The nonpartisan referee’s approval is required for all provisions in a reconciliation bill.
Before closing the 117th Congress, lawmakers will also need to pass the annual defense spending bill.
This year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Jack Read (D-R.I.). It is named after outgoing Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) who has been instrumental in crafting each iteration of the NDAA since he arrived to Congress in 1995.
A key dispute over the bill involves Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D-W.Va.) request to attach legislation changing fossil fuel permitting requirements.
Currently, permitting new fossil fuel ventures is a years-long process. Manchin has called for reforming this process now as U.S. consumers continue to face high gas prices and as Europe braces for a veritable energy crisis this winter.
Manchin was promised by Schumer that such legislation would be taken up before the end of the current Congress in exchange for Manchin’s crucial support of the $740 billion Inflation Reduction Act.
An earlier effort by Manchin to attach the permitting reform to a stopgap spending bill failed over united GOP and Democrat opposition.
On the surface, the possibility of passing permitting reforms would seem to be in the interest of Republican senators, who have long pushed for just such reforms. However, the minority party has suggested that they will not support any such measure as part of a must-pass continuing resolution, saying that they refuse to give their support to a scheme devised in a backroom deal between the two top Democrats.
In one such comment, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said that any such bill would be “part of a political payback scheme” and vowed not to support the move. This attitude seems to be shared by many of Graham’s GOP colleagues.
Also threatening Manchin’s hopes for permitting reform is Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), whose opposition to fossil fuels has propelled him to oppose the measure proposed by Manchin.
This unlikely alliance was blasted by Manchin in September.
Now, Manchin is trying to attach the permitting reform to the NDAA but negotiators for Republicans have dismissed this effort.
“We haven’t even talked about it because it’s not an option,” Sen. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) told reporters.
Inhofe echoed this attitude, expressing his opposition to including such a bill rider.
With both Republicans and Sanders rallied against him, it could be difficult for Manchin to push his demanded reforms through before the end of this Congress.
Schumer told reporters on Nov. 15 that he was still trying to honor his deal with Manchin, but noted that the votes simply aren’t there.
“As you saw when we tried it last time, there weren’t enough Republican votes,” Schumer said. “I’m working with Sen. Manchin to see what we can get done.”
The NDAA is a must-pass bill for the lame duck Congress. Negotiations for the final draft of the bill continue.
Potentially Ending the Debt Ceiling
Democrats have also mused on the possibility of eliminating the debt ceiling before the end of the 117th Congress.
In an Oct. 31 letter to Speaker Pelosi and Leader Schumer, a coalition of Democrats urged leadership “to take legislative action that will permanently undo the threat posed by the debt limit.”
The Democrat push comes amid fears by the majority party that Republicans could use the debt ceiling as a bargaining chip now that they have taken the House.
“If the counterintuitive nature of the current debt ceiling process is not reason enough to drive change, then the prospect of Republicans sending our economy into default for political gain should be,” the Democrats wrote. “Republicans have repeatedly signaled that they are willing and eager to use the debt limit as a bargaining tool if given the opportunity, and we should take them at their word.”
The debt ceiling has been a focal point of dispute long before the 117th Congress.
The U.S. Treasury is allowed to borrow money on U.S. credit, but only with the approval of Congress. Because the Treasury regularly reaches this limit, from time to time, Congress must approve of further borrowing.
Not raising the debt ceiling would have catastrophic effects—most notably, a default on the part of the United States would strip the U.S. dollar of most of its value. At the same time, limited government Republicans have long warned against the dangers of regularly raising the debt ceiling without making a corollary effort to cut spending and reduce the national debt.
Members of both parties have used the debt ceiling as a bargaining chip in the past.
For instance, Democrats—including then-Sen. Joe Biden—largely voted against raising the debt ceiling during George W. Bush’s presidency over disagreements with the administration’s policies.
In 2011, Republicans forced concessions, including spending cuts, from President Barack Obama through threats to let the debt ceiling lapse.
The issue also has caused headaches for Democrats in the 117th Congress. Last year, a U.S. default was narrowly avoided by an eleventh-hour agreement between Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Schumer.
However, the effort to eliminate the debt ceiling could only advance with GOP support in the Senate.
Winning such support will be difficult, as the debt ceiling could be one of Republicans’ most powerful negotiating tools during the divided 118th Congress. At least 10 Republicans would need to back such a move to overcome the filibuster threshold.
A key focus for the lame duck Congress will be the passage of a new spending package.
In September, lawmakers agreed to a temporary continuing resolution (CR) to fund the government through Dec. 16. Now, with that deadline fast approaching and time running out, Democrats will have to hustle if they hope to craft an omnibus spending package.
An omnibus package, in contrast to a CR, would set federal appropriations levels for all of fiscal year 2023, effectively giving Democrats the ability to tie Republicans’ hands during the first years of the 118th Congress.
If Democrats can’t find the support for a full-scale omnibus package, they’ll be forced to pass another CR to avoid a government shutdown.
Such a move would remove any hope Democrats have of setting spending levels for the next fiscal year, and would permit the Republican majority to be in charge of crafting the bill when they take control.
Electoral Count Act Revision
Democrats are also hoping to push through a bill that would amend the process for congressionally certifying presidential election results.
The proposed bill, introduced by Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), would alter the Electoral Count Act of 1887 (ECA), a bill passed following the electoral crisis of the 1876 election.
Amid ongoing contention over potential fraud in the 2020 election, President Donald Trump tried to persuade Vice President Mike Pence to use his role under the original ECA to challenge the results in several state elections that posed the highest risk of widespread fraud. Pence refused, allowing Joe Biden to be confirmed as the president-elect by the Senate.
The updated ECA would change federal law to significantly lessen the vice president’s role over elections. The legislation would also significantly raise the requirements for members of the House or Senate to object to certifying election results.
Under the 1887 law, only one member of the House and one member of the Senate need to object before the objection is moved to a floor vote in the chamber. Under the new draft of the measure, this would be raised to one-third of the Senate needing to object before an objection could be moved to a floor vote.
The legislation would also narrow the list of potential objections lawmakers can make to certifying a slate of electors.
During the 2020 election, disputes over election results in various states continued well into December 2020. Under the ECA revision, future state-level election disputes would need to be resolved by a set deadline.
In September, the House passed its own version of the bill, sponsored by Reps. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.).
The Senate draft of the bill has won broad support from Republican senators, including McConnell and 15 others. In September, the ECA revision glided through a committee vote.
Still, proponents of the bill are running out of time and options to pass the legislation.
If supporters tried to put the bill up for a vote on its own, it would be subject to a lengthy amendment process, a process which may take more time than leadership can spare.
If the bill did pass the Senate, the House would have to choose to either pass the Senate version of the bill as is, or to begin another lengthy process to reconcile the two bills.
Alternatively, the bill could be attached to a must-pass bill like the NDAA, but it remains unclear if leadership will take this approach.
Electoral Count Act Revision
During the first of their two weeks back in Washington, Democrats are expected to take up leadership elections.
After over a decade leading the party in the lower chamber, Pelosi—yielding to pressure from younger members of her caucus—announced that she would not seek reelection as the top House Democrat.
“Scripture teaches us that for everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven,” Pelosi said on the House floor on Nov. 17. “For me, the hour’s come for a new generation to lead the Democratic caucus that I so deeply respect, and I am grateful that so many are ready and willing to shoulder this awesome responsibility.”
Other Democrat leaders, including House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), announced that they will follow suit, leaving the top three Democrat positions up for grabs. Clyburn, citing the need for southern representation among Democratic leadership, is seeking a lower leadership position.
Now that they are confirmed to be in the minority for the 118th Congress, Democrats will gather as a caucus this week to elect their new leaders.
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), who during the 117th Congress served as the caucus chair, is the clear frontrunner for the top spot: House minority leader.
Jeffries, 52, the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, announced his bid on Nov. 18 in a letter to his Democrat colleagues (pdf).
If elected minority leader, Jeffries said, “I hope to lead an effort that centers our communication strategy around the messaging principle that values unite, issues divide.”
He has received the endorsement of all three sitting top Democrats, including Pelosi, Hoyer, and Clyburn.
Jeffries’s announcement came after Assistant Speaker of the House Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) announced a bid to become the next minority whip, the position currently held by Clyburn.
“I will fight for our agenda and your priorities while running a strategic defense,” Clark wrote. “You can trust me to listen to all corners of the Caucus, be results-oriented, and be resolute in my commitment to our values.”
Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.), 43, the current caucus vice chair, said he would seek to replace Jeffries as caucus chair.
Pelosi, Hoyer, and Clyburn—all 82 or 83—have been in power for years, with Pelosi becoming a senior party leader in 2003, Hoyer joining the year later, and Clyburn joining in 2007.
Younger Democrats have been agitating for change at the top. The caucus includes three of the five youngest members of Congress—including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Sara Jacobs (D-Calif.), and Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.).
Generational fractures between the party’s old guard and new Democrats first emerged as early as 2018, when Democrats extracted a pledge from Pelosi that she wouldn’t serve as speaker again. She later reneged on that promise and was reelected speaker in the 117th Congress.