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Monday, November 14, 2016

Congress returns after election shocker

This week: Congress returns after election shocker
By Cristina Marcos and Jordain Carney - 11-14-16 06:00 AM EST

Members of Congress return this week to a political order upended from the one they left in Washington two months ago.

This year's lame-duck session could be one of the lamest in years. That's because some Republicans will likely be eager to hold off as much as they can until Donald Trump is sworn into office in January.

Lawmakers have relatively little time to get through all of their remaining year-end business after spending weeks on the campaign trail.

They'll be gone again next week for the Thanksgiving holiday. By the time they come back, government funding runs out the following week on Dec. 9.

Here's a look at what lies ahead for Congress during President Obama's final weeks in the White House.

Leadership elections

The first order of business for House Republicans on Tuesday will be to hold their leadership elections on Tuesday. Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is expected to prevail easily along with the rest of his top three deputies, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) and House GOP Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.).

As recently as ten days ago, Ryan appeared to be on shaky ground with some House conservatives angry he had distanced himself from Trump and feeling that not enough had changed under his tenure as Speaker. But any intraparty feud has dissolved, at least for now, after Trump shocked the political establishment with his victory.

There are two vacancies for lower-ranking slots in the House GOP leadership hierarchy. Outgoing Republican Study Committee Chairman Bill Flores (R-Texas) and Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) are running for GOP conference vice chairman. As of Monday morning, no one had announced a candidacy for the conference secretary slot expected to be vacated by Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), the likely new Education and the Workforce Committee chairwoman.

House Democrats, meanwhile, will hold their leadership elections on Thursday. No one is challenging Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) or Assistant Minority Leader Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) despite tough election results last week.

Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.) is considered a shoo-in to replace Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) as Democratic caucus chairman. The race to replace Crowley as vice chairman is the only truly competitive leadership battle, between California Democratic Reps. Barbara Lee and Linda Sanchez.

Leadership elections in the Senate are slated for Wednesday.

Though Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has a glide path into the Senate minority leader spot, Democrats are still waiting to find out if they'll have a battle for the caucus's No. 2 spot.

The potential fight between Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who currently holds the position, and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who is currently the No. 4 Democrat, over who will be whip has been simmering on the back burner for more than a year.

Murray hasn't publicly stated that she will challenge Durbin, and could replace Schumer when he vacates the No. 3 spot as caucus policy chairman. Eli Zupnick, a spokesman for Murray, offered no hints on Friday, saying she would continue "her work in Democratic leadership next Congress."

"She is having conversations with Senator Schumer and others about what the Democratic leadership team should look like and where she can best contribute from," he added.

Durbin, meanwhile, has signaled for months that he intends to run for whip again and reiterated this week that he believes he has the votes to keep the job.

"I've been reaching out to my caucus and there's support for that," he told The Washington Post. "I'll keep calling [members]. I look forward to being part of this leadership team."

Also in the mix on the Democratic side: Sen. Bernie Sanders. Michael Briggs, a spokesman for the Vermont senator, told The Nation that Sanders is "thinking about" trying to join the leadership team.

Briggs didn't respond to a request for comment about whether Sanders is eyeing a current position or would want to carve out a new role, similar to what outgoing Democratic Leader Harry Reid did for Sen. Elizabeth Warren after the 2014 election.

Senate Republicans, meanwhile, are expected to keep the current leadership team intact after GOP lawmakers reached an agreement on partial terms earlier this year.

Funding the government

Some conservatives, like the Republican Study Committee's Flores, are calling for a short-term spending bill lasting into early next year instead of having to negotiate an omnibus appropriations package with President Obama.

Others counter that getting tough decisions on government spending out of the way now will clear the decks for the new Trump administration next year.

House and Senate Republicans will get their first chance to talk about the funding plan this week as they return to Washington.

McConnell has provided little guidance on what form a government funding bill will take. Asked about his thinking last week about a CR versus an omnibus, he told reporters that the caucus "really haven't talked about that."

Obama's White House is urging against another stopgap bill. Trump, for his part, has not indicated his preference at this point.

Freshman orientation

Newly elected members of the House and Senate will arrive in Washington for the first time this week for freshman orientation. They'll participate in leadership elections for the new Congress, along with more mundane tasks like the office lottery.

The new Congress is set to be increasingly diverse. One bright spot for Democrats on an otherwise disappointing election night is that many of their new members are women and people of color.

Despite Trump's win, for instance, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus is poised to add several new members. And Catherine Cortez Masto, who won retiring Minority Leader Harry Reid's (D-Nev.) seat, will become the nation's first Latina senator.

The number of women of color in the Senate is set to quadruple. Incoming senators Tammy Duckworth (Ill.), Kamala Harris (Calif.) and Cortez Masto will join Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) in those ranks.

Unfinished legislative business

Congress has a few other pressing legislative items apart from striking a deal on government spending.

Lawmakers will have to approve the annual defense authorization before the end of the year and reconcile the two chambers' respective versions.

In addition, Iranian sanctions are set to expire at the end of this year. The House plans to vote this week on legislation to extend them for another decade.

It's unclear if Senate Republicans will back a clean 10-year extension of sanctions against Iran. They want to tie an extension to broader penalties amid lingering fallout over the nuclear agreement.

A proposal spearheaded by Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the Foreign Relations Committee chairman, pairs a 10-year extension with mandatory new sanctions and limitations on a president's ability to use national security waivers. But those measures are considered non-starters for most Democrats.

Top Democrats, including Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Sens. Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and Ben Cardin (Md.), introduced an extension that would run through 2026 earlier this year.

Seven Democrats also sent a letter to McConnell asking that he "prioritize" a clean extension of the measure during the Senate's end-of-year session.

McConnell also reiterated this week that the 21st Century Cures bill is one of his two priorities-along with funding the government-for the lame duck. The legislation is aimed at speeding up the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) approval process for new drugs and investing new money in medical research.

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