Not taking care of business: Congress on winter vacation, leaving long list of challenges behind

Congress will return with only three days to avert the next government shutdown.

February 16, 2024, 5:26 PM

The House has embarked on a 12-day winter recess, joining the Senate’s two-week recess and leaving a long list of critical unfinished business on Capitol Hill.

Navigating a three-vote majority, Speaker Mike Johnson rejected pressure to consider the Senate’s bipartisan $95 billion national security supplemental. That move leaves not only aid for Ukraine dangling on a branch, but also funding for Israel and Taiwan -- not to mention emergency legislation to address the migrant crisis at the southern border.

As these challenges only grow, Johnson says he is turning his attention to the looming government funding deadlines. And rightfully so: when the House returns to session on Feb. 28, they’ll have just three legislative days to pass legislation to avert a partial government shutdown. A secondary government funding deadline strikes a week later on March 8 -- potentially shutting down the rest of the government.

Johnson has repeatedly depended on Democrats to help keep the government open, passing short-term funding bills under suspension of the rules -- requiring a two-thirds majority for passage. While the two-thirds majority is a higher threshold for passage, Johnson is able to overcome hurdles placed by members of his own majority and allow Democrats to freely help him keep the federal government open.

Those stop-gap measures -- the last signed into law on Jan. 19 -- were supposed to buy lawmakers additional lifelines to pass the rest of their appropriations bills. But Republicans have failed to demonstrate any substantial progress on that front since the last short-term funding bill kicked the can down the road. While lawmakers wrestle over the FY2024 funding gap from March to Sept. 30, soon the appropriations committee will begin work on FY2025 -- further complicating the fight over government spending.

PHOTO: U.S. Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, R-La., speak following a briefing with National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan at the U.S. Capitol, Feb. 15, 2024, in Washington.
U.S. Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, R-La., speak following a briefing with National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan at the U.S. Capitol, Feb. 15, 2024, in Washington.
Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Cognizant that legislation did not yet have enough votes to pass, Johnson also yanked a FISA bill from the floor earlier this week -- the second instance where he’s withdrawn consideration of FISA legislation in order to go back to the drawing board.

During the legislative break, the House will still focus its attention on the impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden and conduct a closed-door interview with James Biden, the brother of the president on Feb. 21. A week later, on Feb. 28, they’ll conduct a private deposition of Hunter Biden, the president’s son.

Also, Biden special counsel Robert Hur is scheduled to testify in a public hearing before the House Judiciary Committee on March 12, according to sources familiar with the matter.

After hiding his cancer diagnosis, prostate surgery and subsequent hospitalization from not only the public but also Biden, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is also scheduled to testify at the House Armed Services Committee on Feb. 29.

This Congress remains one of the least productive sessions in U.S. history, sending just 39 bills for the president’s signature.

With divided power on Capitol Hill, legislation typically passes one chamber, but dies in the other.

PHOTO: In this May 7, 2023 file photo, the U.S. Capitol is seen behind the Washington Monument in Washington.
In this May 7, 2023 file photo, the U.S. Capitol is seen behind the Washington Monument in Washington.
Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The House overwhelmingly passed the Tax Relief for American Families and Workers Act, which temporarily expands the child tax credit while renewing some corporate tax cuts. But the Senate has not yet considered it yet and it’s unclear if it enjoys the same level of bipartisan support in the upper chamber.

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Lately, the big-ticket votes in the House have either failed (Israel suspension vote), taken two attempts (impeachment of Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas) or will take a third attempt (FISA reauthorization).

That’s not to overlook the impasse between the House and Senate over border security, Ukraine and Israel. While House Republicans passed H.R. 2, Secure the Border Act of 2023, they also passed Israel aid months ago, but tied it to IRS cuts. After the speaker eventually dropped the cuts from the bill, the president issued a veto threat and Democrats helped defeat an attempt to pass the stand-alone Israel aid.

The Senate meanwhile sent the House a massive $95 billion aid package to address Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan. It passed the upper chamber this month with strong bipartisan support -- nearly half of the Republican conference backed it -- but that support does not appear to be enough to sway Johnson, whose conference has largely soured on Ukraine in recent months.

The Senate has refused to put the GOP’s border bill up for a vote, attempting to tie the funding to Ukraine and Israel before that proposal collapsed.

Those stalemates -- which enjoy broad bipartisan support and could potentially pass if brought up for a vote -- may be intended to protect vulnerable incumbents from casting tough votes in an election year – but with inaction, the crises only grow as does the dysfunction on Capitol Hill.

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