The 4 Biggest Storms Looming in Congress’s Return
If there’s one thing this Congress has going for it, it’s that they can’t possibly match the futility of 2023. (Or can they?) After one of the most dramatic — but unproductive — years ever, members are returning to Washington next week with a much longer to-do list and an even more unforgiving calendar to accomplish it. Thanks to the deep hole members dug with the drama over the speakership, there’s a lot of ground to make up in actual legislating in this young year. And unfortunately for Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), the second half of this term promises plenty of fireworks right off the bat.
1. Stopping a Government Shutdown
It wouldn’t be January (or February, March, April…) if the threat of a government shutdown wasn’t hanging over both parties’ heads. While Johnson did his best to buy Congress more time, passing a clever two-tiered bridge to 2024 in November, the clock has already started ticking on the first of those “laddered” deadlines: January 19. That’s when government funding is set to expire for a handful of agencies, including Agriculture, Rural Development, and the Food and Drug Administration; Energy and Water Development; Military Construction and Veterans Affairs; and Transportation, Housing and Urban Development.
Republicans will have their hands full getting everyone on board with a slew of targeted spending cuts in those areas, especially when there are plenty of non-fiscal issues — like abortion — complicating matters. In the Agriculture debate alone, the GOP’s cracks started showing back in September, when a band of pro-choice Republicans sank the bill over commonsense protections on chemical abortion. If even a handful defect now, it’ll spell disaster for Johnson’s already fragile coalition.
As the Heritage Foundation’s Connor Semelsberger laments, nothing about the GOP’s proposals are controversial. “The language in question would simply undo Biden’s actions to remove existing health and safety protocols that ensure every woman who is prescribed chemical abortion pills receives them in person from a medical professional rather than through the mail or from a pharmacy.” Ironically, he went on, “these health and safety protocols that Republicans are seeking to reinstate in this bill are the ones first established in 2016 under the Obama-Biden administration.”
As if Johnson doesn’t have enough to contend with in his caucus, this bloc of rebel Republicans seems intent on fighting every appropriations bill that tries to roll back the Biden administration’s unconstitutional overreach on abortion.
Negotiations get even stickier for hardline conservatives, who are determined to slash the government’s budgets, regardless of their razor-thin majority. Republicans like Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), one of the drivers of the HUD and Transportation budget, hinted at the heavy lift ahead. “It’s going to be very difficult to get all of the appropriations bills we have to get done in time if we don’t have the [top-line] number, and we don’t have the number right now. So, we’re going to have to make some tough decisions in early January.”
While the House has done some legwork, passing seven of the 12 appropriations bills, the two chambers have radically different ideas of what the proposals should look like — and hashing through those differences will take more time than Congress currently has. That leaves Johnson, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), and the leadership of both parties with a few options: a) They can let portions of the government shut down while they take the necessary time to debate the bills; b) they can pass a dreaded omnibus package that crams all of the remaining budgets into one (an idea Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Ky., called “unacceptable”); c) Johnson moves forward with a longer continuing resolution, giving Congress a longer runway to finish the job (something he’s already panned in the press); or d) both chambers buckle down and do their jobs before the January 19 and February 2 targets.
With just eight legislative days until the first buzzer, everyone can agree: the path forward on appropriations is murkier than ever.
2. Ukraine and Israeli Aid Meet the Border Crisis
Without a government shutdown to contend with, the battle over Ukraine funding managed to suck up most of the Hill’s holiday air. In a rare show of unity, Republicans stuck to their guns on this one, refusing to give in to President Biden’s demand for billions more dollars in aid until he agrees to close the southern border. Ultimately, the two sides left town without a resolution, kicking the can into 2024.
Since then, U.S. officials have announced a record 300,000 migrant crossings in December — obliterating the previous highwater mark from September. December’s tally brings the total for the first quarter of FY2024 to over 785,000, an eye-popping number that’s sent local officials in Texas and Arizona scrambling. As Fox News’s Bill Melugin pointed out, that’s “a population size bigger than Seattle in just three months.”
As Americans become increasingly angry about the situation, even Democrats are starting to break with the president. Senator John Fetterman (D-Pa.) was openly critical, urging the White House to get off its hands and do something. “Honestly, it’s astonishing,” he said. “And this isn’t a Fox News kind of statistic. This is the government’s. … I hope Democrats can understand that it isn’t xenophobic to be concerned about the border. It’s a reasonable conversation, and Democrats should engage.”
With public opinion on their side, Republicans enter 2024 with a stronger hand to make the necessary reforms. As recently as Friday, Senate negotiators were talking through more options, as Biden repeated his call for more help in Volodymyr Zelensky’s fight against Russia.
Mired in this back-and-forth is any financial assistance for Israel, which has yet to receive U.S. aid since the October 7 attacks. The House passed a standalone bill to funnel $14 billion dollars to our Middle East ally — only to meet a brick wall in the Democratically-controlled Senate.
While Biden has hinted at his willingness to “compromise,” Johnson has pushed for him to prove his sincerity through executive actions that would stop the lax asylum policy and start rebuilding the wall. Meanwhile, senators are returning to D.C. more convinced than ever that Ukraine comes second to our own national security problems.
Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) made it clear that Biden needs to “accept the idea that we’re full.” “Take the tools we’re willing to give you to stop the inflow” of migrants on the U.S.-southern border, including deportations, and “you’ll turn things around pretty quickly” and “we’ll get money for Ukraine,” he insisted on “Face the Nation” Sunday. As much as he and other leaders want to help Ukraine, the reality, Graham argued, is that our border “is not broken, it is in chaos.”
3. Joe Biden Impeachment Inquiry
Before heading home for Christmas, House Republicans were on the same page about one thing: a formal impeachment inquiry into the current president. In a shift from earlier in the year, every GOP member, including the chamber’s moderates, voted to approve the move to intensify the investigation into Joe Biden’s influence peddling. “The White House is seeking to block key testimony from current and former White House staff,” Oversight Chair James Comer (R-Ky.) argued. “It is also withholding thousands of records from Joe Biden’s time as Vice President. President Biden must be held accountable for his lies, corruption, and obstruction. We have a duty to provide the accountability and transparency that Americans demand and deserve.”
As evidence continues to mount that then-Vice President Biden not only knew about his son Hunter’s business dealings but was actively involved in them, the National Archives prepared to release 62,000 pages of damning documents to Comer that included “emails by Joe Biden under secret aliases and records tied to his son …”
In a lawyerly op-ed for USA Today, Speaker Johnson insisted the charges against Biden “must be addressed.” Unlike the Democrats’ witch hunt against Donald Trump, the speaker made it clear that House Republicans “will not prejudge this investigation; we will depose witnesses, gather evidence, establish a thorough record and present Articles of Impeachment only if the evidentiary record dictates such action.”
The American people “have a right to know whether the president — through his family — traded official acts for foreign dollars, whether the president is compromised, and whether Joe Biden abused his power as president to impede or obstruct the investigation into Hunter Biden,” Johnson continued. “As we have done all along, House Republicans will continue to follow the facts where they lead.”
4. The Ever-Shrinking GOP Majority
If people thought Kevin McCarthy walked a tightrope as speaker, it’s nothing compared to the threadbare majority his successor faces. With the early departure of McCarthy and the expulsion of New York’s George Santos, the House GOP enters 2024 a hair’s breadth away from the minority. With those losses — and no guarantee that either special election will yield a Republican replacement — Johnson now has just 220 members to his credit, a wafer-thin three-vote majority.
For a party already battered by 2023 infighting, holding everyone together on key votes was already a herculean task. “Hopefully no one dies,” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green half-joked on Twitter. But she isn’t wrong. If even a few members peel off of any given bill, Johnson will need Democrats to make up the difference — hardly a recipe for conservative success.
“It’s going to be very difficult for any speaker to satisfy everybody in Congress,” Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) warned. “It might make it more difficult on Speaker Johnson, trying to maintain his majority.”
That task got even harder with Rep. Bill Johnson’s (R-Ohio) official resignation Tuesday. His departure date, January 21, will bring Speaker Johnson’s working majority to just two.
And the implications for November shouldn’t be lost on Republicans, experts warn. As FRC Action’s Matt Carpenter told The Washington Stand, “The nation is heading into what promises to be a bruising election cycle, and candidates will be looking for every advantage they can to win their elections. The biggest advantage is incumbency. Some estimates show incumbents have a 94% re-election rate, so retirements mean open seats in 2024, and open seats are how congressional majorities are won or lost. A candidate can raise vast sums of money, knock on every door in the district, and make all the promises in the world,” Carpenter explained, and “they still have an uphill climb against an incumbent. The current House majority is built on a historically slim margin, so every retirement makes the job of Republicans to retain the speaker’s gavel that much harder.”
“This place is a pressure cooker,” Johnson admitted at a press conference before the end of last year. But based on what’s facing House Republicans, he hasn’t seen anything yet.
Suzanne Bowdey serves as editorial director and senior writer at The Washington Stand.