Congress barrels toward "extremely busy" lame-duck session

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With the midterms fast approaching and lawmakers set to skip town for all of October, Congress is setting aside a lengthy list of major legislative fights for after Nov. 8.

Why it matters: The prospect of Republicans winning one or both chambers of Congress threatens to leave Democrats with a short runway to pass bills codifying marriage equality, banning lawmakers from trading stocks and preventing a Jan. 6 redux.

  • Some of this legislation is bipartisan, but a Republican majority would have its hands full in the first few months with its own legislative priorities — as well as a battery of planned probes into the Biden administration.

The budget: The most pressing matter members will have to deal with is hammering out an annual budget — or passing another stopgap bill — to avert a shutdown and ensure the government stays funded through the holidays.

  • The Senate on Thursday approved a continuing resolution to keep the government funded through Dec. 16, which the House is expected to pass on Friday.
  • “I’m optimistic. We’ve got some work to do, but we’ve got time to do it,” Senate Appropriations Committee Vice Chair Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) said of reaching a budget deal. But, he added, there is “always a chance” of another CR.

Marriage equality: A House-passed bill to codify the right to same-sex and interracial marriage was expected to go to a Senate vote this month, but Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) punted it until after the election.

  • Senators whipping support for the bill asked Schumer for more time to gather at least 10 Republicans, and aides in both parties tell Axios that waiting until the election is over will let out political steam and pave the way for more GOP votes.
  • Yes, but: The Senate is making changes to clarify that the bill doesn’t infringe on religious freedom or open the door to polygamy, meaning it will have to go back to the House for another vote.
  • House Judiciary Committee Democrats told Axios those changes won’t pose an obstacle for House passage. “It seems unnecessary but not likely to be an issue,” said Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), also a co-chair of the LGBTQ+ equality caucus.

Election reform: The Senate is set to take up a bill to reform the Electoral Count Act of 1887 to make it harder to decertify presidential electors, clarify the vice president’s role in the certification process as ceremonial, and minimize opportunities to send Congress competing electoral slates.

  • The House passed its own reform bill, but it got only nine GOP votes. The Senate’s ECA bill, by contrast, is on track to pass with broad bipartisan support.
  • House Administration Committee Chair Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who drafted the House bill, said there is “still some more noodling” that needs to be done to reconcile the two bills, but “I think we’ll get on the same page.”

Congressional stock trading: House Democrats’ bill to curtail stock trading by members of Congress will be kicked until after the election amid uncertainty about whether the Democratic votes are there.

  • “Some [Democratic] members have some difficulty with it,” said Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), a chief deputy majority whip, adding that every Democratic vote will be crucial because “Republican leadership is not going to support this legislation.”

Judges: President Biden has 44 nominees for the federal judiciary awaiting Senate confirmation, a task that could take on heightened urgency if Republicans win the Senate. There are 83 vacancies to fill in total.

  • Senate Judiciary Committee Chair and Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) signaled that’s a high priority for him, saying of the Senate’s massive lame-duck laundry list: “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

Jan. 6: The Jan. 6 select committee is expected to release its final report in this window as well, including legislative recommendations.

  • “Some of them are procedures we can change, or that other entities in government can change, so we’ll be safe. Some of them are easy, some of them are hard,” said Lofgren, also a member of the Jan. 6 panel.

Bonus — National Defense Authorization Act: After much suspense over whether the Senate would return in October to work on the annual must-pass defense bill, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced Thursday that the Senate won’t meet again until Nov. 14.

Between the lines: Democrats in both chambers have far more vulnerable incumbents than Republicans do, incentivizing them to stay out of session in the crucial weeks before the election to give members maximum time on the campaign trail.

What they’re saying: House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told Axios, “I think we’ll get most of what we want to get done in the lame-duck session. But getting all … I don’t know about that.”

  • Hoyer said the budget will likely pose the greatest challenge. “Unfortunately, the Senate hasn’t passed a single appropriation bill. So we have to get an omnibus done and that’s … always tough.”

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