Essential Politics: The lame-duck Congress has a long pre-Christmas to-do list

A man in a dark suit and a woman in an orange suit stand outside a French door.
Senate Majority Leader Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) speak outside the West Wing on Tuesday.
(Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)

Let’s be honest: Our collective work ethic diminishes between Thanksgiving and the end of the year. Between festive celebrations, gift-buying and cookie baking, many people end up prioritizing family time and the holidays, rather than putting all of their energy into their jobs.

But this year, Washington lawmakers don’t have a choice: They have to work hard.

Congress is currently in a what’s called a lame duck session — the period between November’s federal election, when the members of the next Congress are decided, and January, when they take office.

Some of the members who are serving through the end of the year have lost their reelection races; others have retired. Democrats run both houses of Congress this year but next year, they’ll control only the Senate. But the party’s lame-duck majorities have quite the to-do list ahead of them. They need to not only fund the federal government but also get gay marriage legislation to President Biden’s desk and avert a national railroad strike.

If Democrats can get it all done, they could make Biden’s life easier and strengthen his hand in dealing with Republicans after his party loses control of Congress next year.

But can Democrats get all of this done? Will they need help from the GOP?

Hello friends, I’m Erin B. Logan. I’m a national political reporter with the Los Angeles Times. This week, we are going to discuss Congress and the Biden administration.

So much to do, so little time

The legislation protecting same-sex marriage rights, which passed the Senate Tuesday, is a response to the Supreme Court’s decision this summer to overturn the 1973 case that protected access to abortion nationwide. In a concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas suggested the high court should review cases that were based on the same legal reasoning as Roe vs. Wade. Examples include the rulings that protect same-sex marriage and ensure married couples’ access to contraception.


Democrats had hoped to pass legislation to protect access to abortions nationwide. But since they were unlikely to overcome a Republican filibuster in the Senate, they opted for legislation that would protect gay marriage instead. The legislation is expected to easily pass the House.

Out of money again?

Congress must meet or extend its self-imposed Dec. 16 deadline to pass legislation to raise the debt ceiling and keep the federal government running.

Both parties like to use government-funding votes to criticize their opponents as fiscally imprudent. But this time, a deal may be within reach. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have both said they wanted to fund the government for one year. GOP Sen. Richard Shelby, however, made clear that Congress was unlikely to make its self-imposed deadline. “I don’t know if we’ll get it done by the 16th,” the Alabama senator told reporters Monday. “The 16th is the date, I’d like to get it done. But we might be here until Christmas.”

Did someone say bipartisanship?

Congress also hopes to help avert a national railroad strike.

On Monday, Biden called on Congress to intervene and “without any modifications or delay” approve a September agreement that would raise rail workers’ pay by 24%. Both the union and management have reached a stalemate, and Biden said a railroad shutdown would “devastate” America’s economy.

Biden called himself a “proud pro-labor president” and said he was “reluctant” to override the process, but “in this case — where the economic impact of a shutdown would hurt millions of other working people and families — I believe Congress must use its powers to adopt this deal.”

Biden met with McConnell, Schumer, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) Tuesday morning.

During the Tuesday meeting, Biden told GOP leaders that he’s “interested in finding new common ground” and open to listening to their viewpoints, according to the White House . After the meeting, Pelosi told reporters that the House would move Wednesday morning to get the railroad bill to the Senate.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) said he would demand an amendment on paid sick leave for workers, a core rail union demand. He said he would block consideration of legislation unless a roll call vote was called. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas told reporters there could be “substantial Republican support” for Sanders’ amendment.

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The latest from the campaign trail

— Former President Trump has again turned a blind eye to bigotry by dining with a Holocaust-denying white nationalist and Kanye West just days into a third campaign for the White House. Trump had dinner Tuesday at his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida with West, now known as Ye, and Nick Fuentes, a far-right activist who has used his online platform to spew antisemitic and white nationalist rhetoric, the Associated Press reported. Ye, who says he, too, is running for president in 2024, has made his own antisemitic comments in recent weeks, leading to his being suspended from social media platforms and being dropped by his talent agency and companies including Adidas. The former president, who has a long history of failing to condemn hate speech, did not acknowledge Fuentes’ long history of racist and antisemitic remarks, nor did he denounce either man’s defamatory statements.

— State-level law enforcement units created after the 2020 presidential election to investigate voter fraud are looking into scattered complaints more than two weeks after the midterms but have provided no indication of systemic problems, the Associated Press reported. That’s just what election experts had expected and led critics to suggest that the new units were more about politics than rooting out widespread abuses. Most election-related fraud cases already are investigated and prosecuted at the local level. Florida, Georgia and Virginia created special state-level units after the 2020 election, all pushed by Republican governors, attorneys general or legislatures.

— For conservatives running for school boards in California, any dream of a “red wave” proved to be a dud as Republican candidates, including a member of an extremist right-wing group, lost in most races across the state, Times writer Mackenzie Mays reported. But even some unsuccessful campaigns garnered enough votes to feed into an already acute sense of political polarization that was once missing from local school board races. And conservative groups feel they’ve found a playbook for winning more. Conservative groups such as the American Council and Moms for Liberty recruited and endorsed dozens of candidates across the state and helped bankroll wins in Placer, Sacramento and San Diego counties, turning red parts of California even redder by way of school board races. They are hoping to harness any lingering COVID-19 frustrations and have adopted a broad “parental rights” motto that, on its face, would seem to appeal to even Democratic voters.

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The view from Washington

— The Supreme Court sounded divided Tuesday over a clash between Biden and the state of Texas involving immigration enforcement, Times writer David G. Savage reported. At issue is whether an existing law requires federal authorities to arrest, detain and deport any “criminal alien” they encounter, or instead gives them the discretion to focus on those who pose the greatest threat to public safety. The case is a major test of executive power. In the past, justices frequently gave presidents latitude in matters of immigration enforcement. But the court’s current conservative majority has increasingly expressed skepticism about Biden administration policies. It is also unclear whether the case will have much day-to-day impact on immigration enforcement.

— The Biden administration is treading lightly in response to demonstrations in China by citizens angry over the country’s harsh COVID-19 restrictions, drawing criticism from Republicans and democracy advocates who say the White House should act more forcefully, Times writers Tracy Wilkinson and Courtney Subramanian reported. The protests, which broke out across China over the weekend, were triggered by the deaths of 10 people in an apartment building fire in the country’s far west last week. Residents blamed China’s strict “zero-COVID” strategy, which includes shutdowns of entire cities and towns when coronavirus cases are detected, for trapping people in their rooms and slowing the ability of firefighters to respond. Public protests are extremely rare in China and have excited human rights and democracy advocates searching for any signs that President Xi Jinping is losing his grip on power. But so far, most outside analysts and foreign policy experts have cautioned that Xi will probably be able to contain the demonstrations in short order.

— The Biden administration is grappling with how to deal with a new Israeli government that will be the most right-wing in that country’s history and may stand in the way of core U.S. goals for the Middle East, Times writer Tracy Wilkinson reported. The new government will be led by Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, who was ousted from the job just a year ago and is on trial for corruption. To regain the position, Netanyahu formed an alliance with controversial political figures known for their extreme anti-Arab views, likely dooming any peace deal with Palestinians. Dealing with the Netanyahu-led government will pose major challenges for the Biden administration, which desires a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and broader acceptance of Israel in the Arab world.

— When Biden speaks about the “scourge” of gun violence, his focus returns to reviving a ban on assault weapons, the Associated Press reported. Biden reiterated that call this week after shootings in Colorado and Virginia: The president wants to sign into law a renewed ban on high-powered guns that have the capacity to kill many people very quickly. When Biden and other lawmakers talk about assault weapons, they are using an inexact term to describe a group of high-powered guns or semiautomatic long rifles, such as the AR-15, that can fire 30 rounds fast without reloading. By comparison, New York Police Department officers carry a handgun that shoots about half that much. A weapons ban is far off in a closely divided Congress. But Biden and the Democrats have become increasingly emboldened in pushing for stronger gun controls — and doing so with no clear electoral consequences.

The view from California

— Los Angeles police detectives have served several search warrants as they attempt to find out who recorded an October 2021 meeting among three L.A. City Council members and a powerful labor leader filled with racist and offensive comments, law enforcement sources told Times writer Richard Winton on Tuesday. The sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the probe is ongoing, did not identify the specific targets of the warrants. But they said the department obtained warrants for several social media accounts. Among them, the sources said, is the Reddit account that posted the audio leak and related cellphone records. LAPD Major Crimes Division investigators served the warrants, signed by a judge, seeking communications over the last few weeks, and the sources said they expect more warrants to be served as the investigation continues.

— The San Diego region’s envisioned multibillion-dollar rail expansion — complete with miles of underground tunnels and state-of-the-art train stations — could be on a collision course with a harsh political reality, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported. The wildly expensive plan, expected to cost roughly $160 billion, has no funding. It probably needs several voter-approved sales tax hikes that would total at least 1.5 cents on the dollar. And players from across the political spectrum have rejected what’s arguably the blueprint’s linchpin: per-mile fees on drivers, known as road charges. Now, key local elections that could shift the balance of power at the government agency spearheading the proposal appear to have been won by Republicans who oppose new levies to fund transit.

— Los Angeles Mayor-elect Karen Bass has invited all staffers in Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office to remain in their jobs through April, according to a letter sent last week — an atypical move intended to steady the ship amid an unusually short transition period, Times writers Julia Wick and Benjamin Oreskes reported. Incoming mayors regularly retain some staff from the previous administration, particularly during the first months of their administration, even as they appoint new deputy mayors and consider which general managers to keep around. But extending a blanket offer is unusual. Though deputy mayors and other senior staffers were included in the invitation, a Bass spokesperson said the incoming mayor will probably fill many of those high-level positions with her own people well before April and that she will soon announce other senior names. On Tuesday, Bass named Christopher Thompson, the senior vice president of LA28, as her chief of staff.

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