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Congress Kicks Off a Chaotic Few Weeks
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Congress Kicks Off a Chaotic Few Weeks

Funding the government will be the top priority, alongside a full slate of major legislation.

Good afternoon. We hope you had a peaceful weekend. August recess is coming to a close, and Capitol Hill is about to get a lot more hectic. (For one thing, I’ll face more competition to get the best vending machine snacks before they run out.)

Senators return to Washington, D.C., this afternoon with about nine weeks to go until Election Day, and the House returns next week. Both chambers have a busy calendar. Leaders hope to advance several major bills before members leave town again to focus on the campaign trail.

Government Funding

Lawmakers face an end-of-the-month deadline to fund the government. Members haven’t agreed on a spending package for the upcoming fiscal year, so they’re likely to pass a short-term stopgap. It could go beyond keeping the government running at current levels: President Joe Biden is requesting Congress approve $22.4 billion in funding for coronavirus response and prevention, including replenishing stocks of testing supplies and investing in vaccine research. The administration is also asking for $4.5 billion to respond to the spread of monkeypox, $11.7 billion in military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine, and $6.5 billion for domestic disaster assistance, among other emergencies.

Lawmakers likely won’t pass all of the emergency funding the administration seeks. Republican lawmakers for months have resisted White House requests for additional coronavirus response spending, so that component of the request could face fierce pushback from GOP lawmakers.

But both parties have been largely united in supporting Ukraine’s defense against Russia’s brutal invasion. Congress approved a $40 billion aid package in May. Shalanda Young, head of the Office of Management and Budget, said the money lawmakers passed earlier is close to depletion.

“We have rallied the world to support the people of Ukraine as they defend their democracy and we cannot allow that support to Ukraine to run dry,” Young wrote. “The people of Ukraine have inspired the world, and the Administration remains committed to supporting the Ukrainian people as they continue to stand resolute and display extraordinary courage in the face of Russia’s full-scale invasion.”

Gay Marriage Vote

Senate Democrats and moderate GOP Sen. Susan Collins are aiming to win enough support in the coming weeks to pass legal protections for gay marriages. 

The House passed the bill earlier this summer, with 47 Republicans joining Democrats behind it. The measure would require states to recognize marriages performed legally in other states. (Read more about the House bill here.)

Democratic lawmakers introduced the bill after the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision in June sending abortion policymaking to the states. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in his concurring opinion that the legal reasoning behind Dobbs could extend to other cases, such as Obergefell v. Hodges, which made gay marriage legal nationwide in 2015

Ten Republicans would have to support the bill to overcome a filibuster in the Senate. Many GOP senators have made the case that the bill isn’t needed, saying they believe the Supreme Court will not overturn Obergefell. Still, several have indicated they will vote for it: Collins, along with Sens. Rob Portman, Thom Tillis, and Lisa Murkowski. Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson initially suggested he might support the bill, but he has walked that position back in recent weeks, seeking an amendment with clearer religious freedom protections.

Collins told Politico she and other top sponsors are contemplating changes to address those concerns. She hopes to see a vote soon.

“My impression is that the majority leader is eager to put this bill on the floor in September, and I hope that he will,” Collins said. “In an election year, I hope this can be a sincere effort by the majority leader, and that he will resist the urge to play politics with the bill.”

Electoral Count Act Reform

When a bipartisan group of senators introduced a plan in July to reform how Congress certifies presidential election results, the bill had nine initial Republican sponsors—just shy of the 10 needed to overcome a filibuster if all Democrats support the legislation. Over the August recess the group won backing from another Republican, Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, giving it a shot at passage. 

Democratic leaders could bring the reform forward for a vote in the coming months. But to send it to the president’s desk, members of the House—some of whom have argued the Senate legislation does not go far enough—would have to embrace it without changes or negotiate a version that wouldn’t cost any votes in the Senate.

The bipartisan group of senators, led by Collins and West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin, drafted the bill to prevent lawmakers and presidents from taking advantage of the existing law’s vague phrasing outlining the certification of Electoral College votes after presidential elections. Former President Donald Trump and his allies cited the 135-year-old Electoral Count Act to falsely claim then-Vice President Mike Pence could overturn the election results when Congress convened to certify them on January 6, 2021.

The bill would clearly state the vice president has “solely ministerial duties” in overseeing the certification of the results and create new guardrails preventing vice presidents from stepping beyond that role. It would also raise the threshold required for members of Congress to challenge a state’s slate of electors. While the current law mandates only one member from each chamber sign onto an objection, the proposed legislation would require 20 percent of both the House and Senate to back an objection for it to be considered. (You can read more about the bill here.)

Before Grassley signed onto the plan as a cosponsor, he told reporters in early August that he supports raising the threshold to lodge objections to results and explicitly limiting the vice president’s role.

“People thought, well, maybe the vice president has some discretion. He should not have had this discretion ever,” Grassley said. “And this law will make it clear that he won’t have that discretion.”

Afghan Adjustment Act

Lawmakers and immigration advocates hope Congress will soon approve a pathway for permanent residency for tens of thousands of Afghan refugees already in the United States.

A bipartisan coalition of lawmakers introduced the Afghan Adjustment Act during the August recess. Now that they’re returning to the Capitol, they’ll work to build broader support for it among their colleagues.

Many Afghans who escaped to the United States after the Taliban took power last year have only a temporary authorization to be here, known as special humanitarian parole. Current avenues to obtain permanent legal status—such as the U.S. asylum system or the Special Immigrant Visa program for Afghans who assisted American forces during two decades of war—are direly backlogged. (Read my colleague Harvest’s story this morning on Ukrainian refugees facing similar problems.)

The Afghan Adjustment Act would create a separate vetting process for Afghans to apply for permanent residency. 

Matthew Soerens, U.S. director of church mobilization and advocacy for the evangelical Christian organization World Relief, told The Dispatch last month he hopes to see the bill pass by the end of the year. A Republican House, with many members skeptical of a wide array of immigration bills, could present more hurdles. 

“I know the math that we need to make work out right now, and I think it’s possible right now,” said Soerens. “Particularly in the House, it could become more challenging next year. It may not, but it very well could. And that’s true, frankly, on any number of immigration policy issues that we’re paying attention to.”

On the Floor

The Senate will consider several judicial nominees this week.

Key Hearings

  • The Senate Finance Committee will meet Wednesday morning to advance Douglas McKalip to serve as the chief agricultural negotiator for the office of the U.S. Trade Representative. Information and livestream here.

  • A House Oversight and Reform subcommittee will hold a hearing Wednesday morning in Philadelphia on the U.S. Postal Service. Information and livestream here.

  • The top official from the U.S. Copyright Office will appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee for an oversight hearing on Wednesday afternoon. Information and livestream here.

  • A subcommittee of the House Natural Resources panel will hold a field hearing Thursday afternoon on offshore wind power. Information and livestream here.

  • Members of the House Education and Labor subcommittee on civil rights and human services will meet Thursday afternoon for a hearing on investing in juvenile justice programs. Information and livestream here.

Of Note

Haley Wilt is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.