Congress has a lengthy to-do list that lawmakers will have to tackle when they return to Washington for the new year after the holiday season.
Democrats, who control the White House and hold narrow majorities in the House and Senate, are under growing pressure to deliver on promises to voters. The clock is ticking as the 2022 midterm elections approach when the balance of power could change and the party’s opportunity to take action could slip away.
But Democrats face major obstacles to implementing their agenda, particularly in the Senate where party control is split 50-50 and Democrats need every single member of their caucus to be unified if they want to pass legislation without Republican votes under a process known as reconciliation.
Democrats and Republicans will confront a government funding deadline in mid-February and will need to pass legislation before funding expires. This comes after Congress acted in December to narrowly avoid a shutdown by passing a stopgap bill to extend funding through February 18.
Here’s a look at some of the other key issues on the horizon in the new year:
Democrats will try to pick up the pieces on the Build Back Better Act
West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, a key swing vote, dealt his party a major blow when he announced in late December that he was a “no” on the Build Back Better Act, legislation championed by President Joe Biden to expand the social safety net and fight the climate crisis.
Now, Democratic leaders have to figure out what happens next. They are vowing not to give up, but it’s not yet clear what Democrats might be able to accomplish.
Biden has said that he still thinks “there’s a possibility of getting Build Back Better done” and has insisted that he and Manchin will “get something” finished after the West Virginia moderate undercut the President’s agenda. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said that Democrats “will not let this opportunity pass.”
Democratic leaders plan to keep the pressure on. In the wake of Manchin’s announcement, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer indicated to his caucus that he plans to push ahead with a vote on the legislation that will force Manchin to go on the record on the Senate floor.
“The Senate will, in fact, consider the Build Back Better Act very early in the new year so that every member of this body has the opportunity to make their position known on the Senate floor, not just on television,” Schumer told members of his caucus in a letter on December 20.
“We are going to vote on a revised version of the House-passed Build Back Better Act – and we will keep voting on it until we get something done,” he wrote.
One option Democrats may look at is whether they can try to pass any of the priorities contained within the Build Back Better Act, even if it means advancing them alone or as part of a significantly scaled back version of the legislation.
CNN has reported that Manchin has told colleagues that he would keep talking. But the senator has indicated that he would not quickly get behind a scaled-back version of the plan, arguing that it should instead go through the committee process before trying to move it through the Senate via the filibuster-proof reconciliation process. That position underlines the major hurdles ahead for Democrats if they hope to advance even a narrow version of the legislation.
When asked in a recent interview on Fox News if Democrats are open to scaling back the bill or passing various pieces on a stand-alone basis, Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland said “that’s a strategy decision that is being negotiated. We are open to a way to reach the finish line.”
Progressives in the House in the meantime have called on Biden to turn to executive action while lawmakers try to reach a deal.
“The White House must continue to act on a parallel track by using the President’s incredibly powerful tool of executive action,” the Progressive Caucus said in a statement in late December. “The legislative approach, while essential, has no certainty of timing or results — and we simply cannot wait to deliver tangible relief to people that they can feel and will make a difference in their lives and livelihoods.”
Progressive Caucus Chairwoman Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat from Washington state, has also made clear that House progressives would not accept a smaller version of the Build Back Better Act, putting down a clear guard rail as negotiations start to resume.
“No one should think that we are going to be satisfied with an even smaller package that leaves people behind or refuses to tackle critical issues like climate change,” Jayapal said in late December.
Senate Democrats to try again on voting legislation but face uphill battle
Schumer has also told members of his caucus to get ready for the Senate to try again on voting legislation in the new year – but Democrats face major obstacles that threaten to doom the effort as a result of Republican opposition and limitations they face due to their narrow majority and constraints from Senate rules.
In his letter to Senate Democrats, Schumer wrote, “after the 117th Congress resumes in January, the Senate will consider voting rights legislation, as early as the first week back.”
The issue for Democrats is that most legislation requires at least 60 votes to pass in order to overcome a filibuster. Democrats only control 50 seats in the chamber and there are not 10 Republicans willing to vote with Democrats to pass voting legislation. As a result, Senate Republicans have blocked attempts by Democrats to advance voting and elections bills multiple times already.
Schumer indicated in his letter that Democrats may need to try to change Senate rules as a result.
“If Senate Republicans continue to abuse the filibuster and prevent the body from considering this bill, the Senate will then consider changes to any rules which prevent us from debating and reaching final conclusion on important legislation,” he wrote.
But Manchin as well as moderate Arizona Democrat Kyrsten Sinema have both repeatedly made clear they oppose getting rid of the filibuster, creating a key hurdle for Democrats eager to change Senate rules.
Manchin told CNN in mid-December that any rules changes would have to be done on a bipartisan basis, meaning he is still opposed to nuking the filibuster along party lines to pass voting legislation.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell recently told reporters that “yes” he is convinced that no Republicans will engage in talks with Democrats to change Senate rules to do a voting rights bill.
House January 6 select committee to continue investigation
The House select committee created to investigate the deadly January 6 attack on the Capitol will continue its work in the new year. It is not yet clear when the investigation will be complete, but Democrats may face growing pressure to reach a conclusion as the 2022 midterm elections near.
The committee has issued a long list of subpoenas in an effort to find out information and seek testimony – and Democrats have taken steps to show there will be consequences for non-compliance.
In October, the Democratic-led House of Representatives voted to hold Steve Bannon in criminal contempt after he defied a subpoena from the committee. In mid-December, the House voted to recommend that the Department of Justice pursue criminal charges against former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows for failing to appear for a deposition with the select committee.
The committee has also begun the process of holding former Department of Justice official Jeffrey Clark in contempt of Congress, but has paused that process to give Clark one more chance to testify in front of the committee since he has stated that he intends to claim Fifth Amendment protection.
CNN’s Ali Zaslav, Manu Raju and Zachary Cohen contributed to this report.