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Politics: NDAA, debt ceiling, government funding: Here's what's left for Congress to address in 2021

Republicans are poised to play debt-ceiling chicken with Democrats again — and endanger the world financial system in the process

  Republicans are poised to play debt-ceiling chicken with Democrats again — and endanger the world financial system in the process For the second time this fall, Congress is split over raising the debt ceiling. The stakes couldn't be higher, but Republicans refuse to play ball.The deadline to raise or suspend the debt ceiling is weeks away. Democrats say the responsibility to avoid a catastrophic default on America's debt is bipartisan, as it has been the 78 times Congress has avoided it before. Senate Republicans, however, are withholding their support. They argue that Democrats need to go it alone if they want to spend trillions on President Joe Biden's economic agenda.

WASHINGTON – When Congress returns from Thanksgiving break, they'll have a slate of legislative items they must pass — and others they may try to push through — by the calendar-year's end.

Both chambers of Congress will be working in overdrive to try to avoid a government shut and default, both of which would be catastrophic for the economy, which has already been grappling with the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic.

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 15: U.S. President Joe Biden (L) talks to Speaker of the House Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) (2nd L) as Senate Majority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) (R) looks on after signing the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act as he is surrounded by lawmakers and members of his Cabinet during a ceremony on the South Lawn at the White House on November 15, 2021 in Washington, DC. The $1.2 trillion package will provide funds for public infrastructure projects including improvements to the country’s transportation networks, increasing rural broadband access, and projects to modernize water and energy systems. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775736925 ORIG FILE ID: 1353489059 © Alex Wong, Getty Images WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 15: U.S. President Joe Biden (L) talks to Speaker of the House Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) (2nd L) as Senate Majority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) (R) looks on after signing the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act as he is surrounded by lawmakers and members of his Cabinet during a ceremony on the South Lawn at the White House on November 15, 2021 in Washington, DC. The $1.2 trillion package will provide funds for public infrastructure projects including improvements to the country’s transportation networks, increasing rural broadband access, and projects to modernize water and energy systems. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775736925 ORIG FILE ID: 1353489059

More: What is inflation and how does it affect you? Increase in prices for gas, food, energy raise concern

Trump launched an angry attack on Mitch McConnell, urging him not to work with Democrats to stop the US defaulting on its debts

  Trump launched an angry attack on Mitch McConnell, urging him not to work with Democrats to stop the US defaulting on its debts Trump threatened further attacks on Mitch McConnell unless he takes a hardline path on suspending the debt ceiling, due to expire in December.In a rambling statement Wednesday, Trump called McConnell a "Broken Old Crow" for agreeing to a temporary, two month, extension of the debt ceiling limit back in October.

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In addition, they will need to approve a must-pass national security package.

They have also signaled other legislative priorities, like pushing through President Joe Biden's Build Back Better bill, a China competitiveness bill and other goals.

These are no small feat for any Congress, much less for one as nearly evenly divided — and contentious — as this.

Here's what Congress needs to address in the rest of 2021 and other priorities that Democratic leadership may push for, too.

Government funding to avoid shutdown

Congress has until Dec. 3 to avoid a government shutdown, one of the largest financial hurdles facing lawmakers in the next few weeks.

More: Biden signs bill to avert government shutdown, approves bill to fund government through Dec. 3

Schumer-McConnell dial down the debt ceiling drama

  Schumer-McConnell dial down the debt ceiling drama Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) are dialing down the drama as they try to find an escape hatch from another high-stakes fight over the debt ceiling. Congress has until roughly Dec. 15 to raise the nation's borrowing limit, according to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, who has warned that the mid-December date is when the government will no longer be able to fully pay its bills. On theCongress has until roughly Dec. 15 to raise the nation's borrowing limit, according to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, who has warned that the mid-December date is when the government will no longer be able to fully pay its bills.

In late September, Biden and Congress averted a government shutdown, just hours before a midnight deadline, by funding the government until the beginning of December.

A shutdown would furlough hundreds of thousands of nonessential federal employees, forcing them to take time off without pay. Essential functions such as the military, law enforcement and air-traffic control would continue functioning, but discretionary agencies such as the National Park Service would close.

More: Government shutdown worries have federal offices bracing for furloughs as Congress rushes to pass funding bill

The main entrance to Grand Canyon National Park in Grand Canyon, Ariz., on Oct. 10, 2013, during a federal government shutdown. © Ross D. Franklin, AP The main entrance to Grand Canyon National Park in Grand Canyon, Ariz., on Oct. 10, 2013, during a federal government shutdown.

At the time, Democratic leaders in the Senate were attempting to combine the spending and an increase in the nation's ability to borrow money — the debt ceiling — but Republicans blocked that measure.

How Debt-Ceiling Brinkmanship Is Like Nuclear Brinkmanship

  How Debt-Ceiling Brinkmanship Is Like Nuclear Brinkmanship When both sides think catastrophe will always be averted, each behaves more rashly.Tensions between Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill have cooled after a temporary extension of the debt limit last month, but they could quickly escalate as a new deadline looms in mid-December. If the possibility of default is anything other than zero, it will happen if debt-ceiling chicken is played enough times.

The last government shutdown lasted 35 days and started Dec. 21, 2018, when Donald Trump was president. It followed brief shutdowns in January and February 2018.

Raising debt ceiling to avoid default

Congress has been struggling to address the debt limit. This is despite the fact that raising the debt ceiling would cover expenses lawmakers in both parties have previously run up and now must be paid.

The House passed legislation in mid-October that raised the nation's debt ceiling for several weeks, allowing the government to keep paying its bills and avoid the economic chaos that would come if the U.S. defaulted.

More: House votes to raise debt ceiling, sending bill to Biden and setting up another fight over borrowing limit

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen told lawmakers she estimated the U.S. would reach its debt ceiling by Dec. 15.

If the U.S. defaults on its debt for the first time, the results could lead to a global recession, Treasury Department officials and experts have said. A tanked market would hurt 401(k)s and other investments. For example, a debt ceiling standoff in 2013 cost the economy 1% in GDP.

Fox News Host Confronts GOP Senator for Opposing Debt Limit Hike, Notes Benefits in His State

  Fox News Host Confronts GOP Senator for Opposing Debt Limit Hike, Notes Benefits in His State "This is to pay for things already authorized," Fox News host Trace Gallagher explained to Wyoming Senator John Barrasso.Republican lawmakers have voiced their opposition to increasing the debt limit, which would allow the government to continue funding programs that have already been approved. GOP lawmakers have slammed Democrats' efforts to pass large spending packages to defend their opposition—but Democrats have pointed out that the debt limit increase would cover spending previously approved, not new spending.

The national debt is now approaching $29 trillion. The ceiling was extended to cover rising debt incurred by spending programs and tax cuts passed by Republican — and Democratic — controlled Congresses in the past.

GOP lawmakers said during the summer they wouldn't help Democrats, who narrowly control Congress, to lift the ceiling because they've felt excluded from negotiations on Biden's big-ticket spending proposals, like the Build Back Better Act.

Congress hopes to avoid a government shutdown as Friday deadline approaches

  Congress hopes to avoid a government shutdown as Friday deadline approaches Washington and Wall Street were optimistic Monday that Congress can pass a bill to fund the government and avert a partial shutdown before a Friday deadline. Democrats and Republicans appeared to be coalescing around a bill to fund the government through late January or early February, a personal familiar with the discussions told CNBC. A lapse in government funding can lead to furloughs of federal workers and a lapse in some government services.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., insisted then that Democrats address the issue by themselves through a legislative procedure called reconciliation, a maneuver that would allow Democrats to approve the bill without Republican support. Democrats said this option would be cumbersome and lead to long debates.

The president urged Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and the rest of the Republicans to © J. Scott Applewhite, AP The president urged Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and the rest of the Republicans to "get out of the way" and let Democrats suspend the nation's debt limit to keep the government from a devastating credit default.

However, McConnell and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., met in person before the Thanksgiving break on the issue, with McConnell telling reporters they had a "good conversation."

“We agreed to kind of keep talking, working together to try to get somewhere,” McConnell added.

Trump: McConnell must use debt limit to crush Biden agenda

  Trump: McConnell must use debt limit to crush Biden agenda Former President Trump on Tuesday urged Senate Republicans to use the federal debt limit as leverage to defeat President Biden's social services and climate bill.In a Tuesday statement, Trump berated Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and insisted he should prevent Democrats from raising the federal debt ceiling by any means necessary. "Old Crow Mitch McConnell, who is getting beaten on every front by the Radical Left Democrats since giving them a two-month delay which allowed them to 'get their act together,' must be fully prepared to use the DEBT CEILING in order to totally kill the Democrat's new Social Spending (Wasting!) Bill, which will chan

NDAA: Must-pass defense policy bill

Before the end of the year, Congress will need to address the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), a must-pass national security package.

The NDAA is one of the most important pieces of military legislation passed by Congress each year, providing authorization of appropriation and spending for the Department of Defense and other defense-related issues and agencies.

More: Senate overrides Trump's NDAA veto — the first such rebuke of his presidency

The NDAA usually passes both chambers with bipartisan support. Around the end of 2020, both chambers of Congress overrode Trump's veto of the 2021 NDAA — a rare rebuke in a divided Washington that underscored the importance of the legislation and its funding.

The 2022 NDAA passed the lower chamber in September and will be debated after the Thanksgiving break in the upper chamber — Senators adjourned prior to the recess amid hundreds of amendments being filed on the legislation.

The amended NDAA would then be kicked back down to the House for passage, before it lands on Biden's desk for a signature.

More: Women would be required to register with the Selective Service if this amendment becomes law

The 2022 legislation includes an amendment that would require women to also sign up for the Selective Service — and thus the any drafts in the future — and several provisions to examine the war in Afghanistan, following the U.S. withdrawal and evacuation in August.

Schumer is also pushing to repeal the 2002 Iraq War authorization as part of the bill.

McConnell leaves GOP in dark on debt ceiling

  McConnell leaves GOP in dark on debt ceiling Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is keeping his debt ceiling strategy close to the vest as he negotiates with Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) ahead of a mid-December cliff. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has said Congress has until Dec. 15 to raise the nation's borrowing limit or risk a catastrophic default that would have widespread ramifications for the global economy. But close allies say they've been given virtuallyTreasury Secretary Janet Yellen has said Congress has until Dec. 15 to raise the nation's borrowing limit or risk a catastrophic default that would have widespread ramifications for the global economy.

Build Back Better hurdles

Though House Democrats celebrated passing Biden's Build Back Better Act just ahead of the Thanksgiving break, challenges lie ahead for the massive bill.

More: House passes Biden’s Build Back Better bill, sending measure with free preschool, climate initiatives to the Senate

The legislation is a wide-ranging package of Democratic social spending priorities, which includes free preschool, initiatives to fight climate change and affordable housing programs.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats cheer after passage of the Build Back Better Act on Nov. 19, 2021, in Washington. © Anna Moneymaker, Getty Images House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats cheer after passage of the Build Back Better Act on Nov. 19, 2021, in Washington.

Though it passed the lower chamber with a 220-213 vote, the legislation faces an uncertain future in the Senate.

This is despite Senate Democrats' ability to pass it using a process called reconciliation, which bypasses a Republican filibuster. But Biden and Democratic leadership need the support of all 50 Democratic voting-senators – and Vice President Kamala Harris' tiebreaking vote – to pass the bill that way.

They currently don't have all 50 on board with the House-passed legislation.

Moderates Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia have yet to sign onto the nearly $2 trillion dollar bill and have flagged some areas of concern. They are part of the reason the bill started as a wish list that originally topped $6 trillion, then fell to $3.5 trillion and is now around $2 trillion.

It is likely to be changed in the upper chamber to gain the support of the two moderates. This would mean it would have to be voted on in the House again for it to make it to Biden's desk for a signature.

Manchin has expressed some qualms with the bill, like the paid family leave provision. He has repeatedly said while he might support paid family leave separately, he doesn't believe it belongs in the social spending bill.

More: What's in the House-passed Build Back Better bill? Paid leave, universal pre-K and more

"That's a piece of legislation that really is needed from the standpoint: if we do it and do it right," he told CNN's "New Day" earlier in November. He added it should be bipartisan and with "regular order through the process," instead of the budget reconciliation process.

Democrats had dropped their proposal to provide 12 weeks of paid family leave in late October due to Manchin's concerns, but then added it in about a week later, scaled back to four weeks.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., an advocate for federally mandated paid family and medical leave, remained hopeful it might be included despite Manchin's resistance. She told CBS News' "Face the Nation" she thinks she and Manchin "can come together hopefully in the next couple of weeks on something that could be included in this package."

"I'm hopeful that if I can use the next three weeks to really impress upon Sen. Manchin that some things can only be done with Democrats— only that now is the only time to do that, perhaps, in the next decade," she continued.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., far left, arrive to vote on a temporary government funding bill to avert a shutdown, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021. President Joe Biden appears unable to strike swift agreement with the two wavering Democrats who are pivotal votes for his big $3.5 trillion government overhaul. © J. Scott Applewhite, AP Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., far left, arrive to vote on a temporary government funding bill to avert a shutdown, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021. President Joe Biden appears unable to strike swift agreement with the two wavering Democrats who are pivotal votes for his big $3.5 trillion government overhaul.

It's unclear where Sinema stands on the current legislation, telling POLITCO, “If you're in the middle of negotiating things that are delicate or difficult ... doing it in good faith directly with each other is the best way to get to an outcome.”

More: Sen. Kyrsten Sinema explains her strategy on infrastructure, spending bills

Schumer said during a news briefing earlier this week that "The House did a very strong bill. Everyone knows that Manchin and Sinema have their concerns, but we're going to try to negotiate with them and get a very strong, bold bill out of the Senate, which will then go back to the House and pass."

The leader said his party would like to finish the bill by Christmas.

Including immigration in BBB

Democrats have struggled to reach a consensus on sweeping immigration changes. They will be pushing through the end of the year to try and include some immigration provisions in the Build Back Better Act.

This comes in light of several setbacks in their attempts to include immigration proposals into Biden's budget package. Advocates say time is running out to pass comprehensive reform before next year's midterm elections.

'We can't wait': Immigration advocates worry time is running out to pass a pathway to citizenship

In their effort to include a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in the budget package, Senate Democrats presented two proposals last month to Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough. Both were rejected on the premise the policy impact outweighed the budget impact.

MacDonough, a nonpartisan, unelected staff member, determines whether policies included in the reconciliation package abide by the Senate's Byrd Rule, which states only policies that have a direct impact on the federal budget can be included.

The options to move forward on immigration are limited, and many advocates and some congressional Democrats see the reconciliation process as the best option in a divided Congress. They have urged Democrats to ignore MacDonough's rulings and include the pathway to citizenship in the bill.

More: Who is the Senate parliamentarian? Meet the referee on major legislation

But Manchin has said he won't vote to overrule the parliamentarian, telling Fox News he's "not going to do that."

Axios reported earlier this week that the parliamentarian has been meeting with Democratic staffers on a provision in the legislation: granting provisional work permits to about 6.5 million undocumented people and temporary protection from deportation.

The meeting was a hopeful sign for staffers of progress on that provision, as it was not ruled out, Axios reported.

The policy does not guarantee a pathway to citizenship like advocates and other Democratic lawmakers are calling for.

'Safeguard our elections': Voting rights

Schumer told his caucus earlier this month he would attempt to focus on voting rights before the end of the year.

The House has approved several pieces of voting rights bills, but Senate Republicans have blocked their advancement in the upper chamber this year.

More: Republicans block John Lewis Voting Rights Act in Senate vote

Terri Sewell et al. standing next to a person wearing a suit and tie: Republicans opposing the legislation say it is part of a partisan strategy for Democrats to federalize election rules to their advantage. © Provided by USA TODAY Republicans opposing the legislation say it is part of a partisan strategy for Democrats to federalize election rules to their advantage.

The Freedom to Vote Act would expand early voting options, voter identification requirements and access to mail-in ballots and allow for same-day registration on election day. It was a scaled back piece of legislation from the For the People Act in an attempt ot get some Republicans on board.

More: Senate Democrats unveil new voting rights bill in latest effort to bring federal rules to elections

Earlier this month, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, was the only Republican to vote to advance another bill — the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act — which would replace part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down in 2013 and would aim to restore Justice Department review of changes in election law in states with a history of discrimination.

Democrats have pushed for voting rights reform to battle gerrymandering across the country and amidst laws restricting voters access across the country. That's especially the case as Trump and Republican state lawmakers continue to push "the big lie," advancing baseless conspiracy theories to falsely argue the 2020 election was stolen.

A USA TODAY analysis of 254 new laws in 45 states passed since then revealed a variety of changes voters may notice and other administrative changes happening behind the scenes. In total, about 55 million eligible voters live in states with changes that will give them less access.

‘A new American fault line’: How new election laws will make it harder for 55 million to vote

'Use your soapbox': Activists urge Biden to step up voting rights push as latest bill fails in Senate

Getting 10 Senate Republicans on board to pass any legislation would be a difficult feat. They have consistently argued federal changes to voting laws are unnecessary, and elections should be handled at the state level.

McConnell said in October that what Democrats have been wanting "to do forever is to have the federal government take over how elections are conducted all over America."

But Schumer touted both the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, writing to Senate Democrats that the bills "work together to safeguard our elections and promote equitable access to the ballot, while fighting back against partisan gerrymandering and unaccountable dark money."

"But just because Republicans will not join us doesn’t mean Democrats should stop fighting. This is too important. Even if it means going at it alone, we will continue to fight for voting rights and work to find an alternative path forward to defend the most fundamental liberty we have as citizens," he continued.

He said Democrats "have been discussing ideas for how to restore the Senate to protect our democracy," hinting at discussing changes to the filibuster.

But several Democrats oppose carving out or changing the filibuster, including Manchin and Sinema.

China competitiveness bill

Both chambers of Congress are likely to consider legislation aimed at reinvigorating America's technological footprint to counter China and invest in semiconductor manufacturing.

The legislation — the United States Innovation and Competition Act — passed the Senate earlier this summer with bipartisan support but faced a murky future in the House, and the lower chamber never passed their own bill.

Now, both chambers are renegotiating the legislation.

More: Senate passes bill to boost US science and tech innovation to compete with China

Schumer last week sought to attach the bill to the NDAA, but the plan faced opposition from Senate Republicans.

Now, Pelosi and Schumer announced they would enter into formal negotiations on the legislation.

"Working with President Biden, the House and Senate have been crafting bipartisan legislation to bolster American manufacturing, fix our supply chains, and invest in the next generation of cutting-edge technology research," the two said, adding: "There are still a number of important unresolved issues.

Contributing: Ledyard King, Bart Jansen, Joey Garrison, Rebecca Morin

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NDAA, debt ceiling, government funding: Here's what's left for Congress to address in 2021

McConnell leaves GOP in dark on debt ceiling .
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is keeping his debt ceiling strategy close to the vest as he negotiates with Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) ahead of a mid-December cliff. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has said Congress has until Dec. 15 to raise the nation's borrowing limit or risk a catastrophic default that would have widespread ramifications for the global economy. But close allies say they've been given virtuallyTreasury Secretary Janet Yellen has said Congress has until Dec. 15 to raise the nation's borrowing limit or risk a catastrophic default that would have widespread ramifications for the global economy.

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