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Here Are the Major Issues and Deadlines Facing Congress as Lawmakers Return to Washington

Elizabeth Frantz | Reuters
  • Congress will return to Washington facing several critical deadlines.
  • Democrats aim to pass President Biden's economic plans, fund the government, raise the debt ceiling and approve a reproductive rights bill.
  • Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer have a heavy lift to meet all of the deadlines before them within a few weeks.

President Joe Biden's massive economic agenda, the full faith and credit of the United States, government funding and abortion rights are all at stake as Congress returns to Washington after weeks away.

The Senate comes back Monday from its August recess. The House will follow the upper chamber back to the Capitol on Sept. 20.

Lawmakers will have to rush to meet a range of critical deadlines in the coming weeks. The speed at which Congress works will determine whether the government shuts down, if the U.S. defaults on its debts and whether the largest proposed expansion of the social safety net in decades will take effect.

"We know the American people are facing challenges of monumental proportions, so we must and we will pass legislation that meets the moment," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Wednesday in pushing for the a torrent of new investments in social programs.

Congress faces a logjam:

  • Infrastructure: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has promised centrist Democrats she will hold a vote on the Senate-passed bipartisan infrastructure bill by Sept. 27. The pledge is not binding, and politics within her caucus could complicate the timeline.
  • Democrats' reconciliation bill: Pelosi hopes to approve an up to $3.5 trillion plan that invests in social programs and climate policy in conjunction with the infrastructure bill. But the House, Senate and White House are still writing the plan — and deciding which version could win the support of nearly every Democrat in Congress.
  • Government funding: Lawmakers need to pass appropriations bills by Sept. 30 to prevent a government shutdown.
  • Debt ceiling: The United States could default on its obligations in October if Congress fails to raise the debt ceiling. Democrats are deciding how to lift or suspend the limit on their own after Republicans said they would not join in the effort.
  • Abortion rights: The House plans to vote on a bill that would protect the right to abortions nationwide after the Supreme Court declined to block a restrictive Texas law. If the chamber passes the plan, it faces long odds in the Senate.


Democratic leaders told centrists threatening to hold up the party's reconciliation plan that they would vote on the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill by Sept. 27. A final House vote would send the package — which would put $550 billion in new money into transportation, broadband and utility systems — to Biden's desk for his signature.

Congress has to overcome hurdles before a long-awaited infrastructure investment comes to fruition. If Pelosi moves too soon to pass the bipartisan bill, it could jeopardize support for the plan among progressives who want to see Democrats' budget plan passed at the same time.

Moving too far past the nonbinding Sept. 27 target risks drawing the ire of the same centrists who previously tried to hold up the Democratic spending plan. Pelosi has said she set the deadline in part because surface transportation funding expires Sept. 30.

Rep. Josh Gottheimer, a New Jersey Democrat and one of the lawmakers who tried to delay the reconciliation bill, stressed Monday that he wants to see the infrastructure bill passed later this month even if the budget plan has not yet made it through the Senate.

Democrats' reconciliation bill

Democrats have to pull off a heavy lift to push through their up to $3.5 trillion spending bill, the biggest piece of Biden's economic agenda. While party leaders do not need to win over any Republicans to pass the plan through budget reconciliation, they will need to keep every Democratic senator and nearly all House members on board to get it through Congress.

Committees are working to write their portions of the plan, then lawmakers will combine them into one sprawling package. Schumer first set a Sept. 15 target date for committees to finish crafting their parts of the legislation.

The plan is far from a done deal. Democrats are expected to increase taxes on the wealthy and corporations, expand child care and paid leave, invest in green energy and offer universal pre-K and free community college. But writing each policy in a way that will satisfy Democrats across the ideological spectrum poses a challenge.

In particular, the party has not come to a consensus on whether to prioritize expanding Medicare or shoring up the Affordable Care Act. Pelosi has said the bill can do both.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., has urged his party to pause consideration of the bill as he and other Democrats say they will not vote for $3.5 trillion in spending. Schumer has not heeded Manchin's call, saying Wednesday that "we're moving full speed ahead."

Slashing spending to appease centrists jeopardizes support from progressives, who see passing the larger plan as a condition for backing the smaller infrastructure bill. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who is playing a major role in the process, has shot down the $1.5 trillion price tag Manchin reportedly favors.

"No, it's absolutely not acceptable to me," he told CNN's "State of the Union" on Sunday. "I don't think it's acceptable to the president, to the American people, or to the overwhelming majority of the people in the Democratic caucus."

Pelosi posed the issue another way to Democrats who support specific policies in the reconciliation bill.

"Where would you cut?" she asked on Wednesday.

Government funding

Government funding will lapse if Congress does not pass a funding bill by Sept. 30. Lawmakers will likely opt for a short-term continuing resolution — which would keep the government running at current spending levels — rather than full-year legislation.

Failure to pass an appropriations plan could lead to furloughs of federal workers and disruptions in essential services. Funding lapsed at least temporarily several times in recent years, most notably during a record 35-day shutdown in late 2018 and early 2019.

The White House on Tuesday urged Congress to approve a stopgap funding bill. The Biden administration called for lawmakers to include billions of dollars in hurricane relief funding and money to help to relocate Afghan refugees.

Debt ceiling

The Treasury Department has already taken so-called extraordinary measures to stave off default on U.S. debts and the potential economic calamity that would follow. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen on Wednesday pushed Congress to raise the debt limit, saying failure to do so "would likely cause irreparable damage to the U.S. economy and global financial markets."

Republicans leaders have stressed they will not join Democrats in voting to raise the debt limit. The GOP has pressured its counterparts to lift the ceiling as part of the $3.5 trillion spending bill, a move the party would try to use as a political cudgel.

Pelosi said Wednesday that Democrats would not wrap the debt limit increase into the reconciliation bill. Schumer would not answer whether his party would include it in the government funding legislation, only saying "we have a number of different ways" to raise the ceiling.

Abortion rights

Democrats have pledged to move quickly to protect reproductive rights after the Supreme Court decided not to block a Texas law that bans most abortions. Critics of the Texas restrictions — which bar most abortions after six weeks, when many people may not even know they are pregnant — say they flout the precedent set by the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.

Pelosi has said that after the House returns, it House will vote on the Women's Health Protection Act, which would make abortion a legal right through the U.S. and prevent states from putting medically unnecessary restrictions on the procedures.

If the plan gets through the House, it may not go far in the Senate. At least 10 Republicans would have to back the bill for it to get the 60 votes needed for passage.

Only two GOP senators, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, have expressed support for abortion rights in the past.

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