U.S. lawmakers face a lengthy list of priorities as they return to work in the nation's capital this month after going into recess for the month of August. The U.S. Senate returns to work this week with renewed concerns about the health of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, while the U.S. House of Representatives comes back into session next week as Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy weighs an impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden.
With just 11 working days left until funding for the U.S. government runs out on September 30, U.S. lawmakers' most urgent priority is to avoid a government shutdown. There's almost no chance the Republican-majority House and Democratic-majority U.S. Senate can agree on a full year of funding in time, raising the likelihood lawmakers will pass a short-term solution known as a continuing resolution, or CR.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a letter to colleagues last Friday his chamber would be focused on passing a spending bill "preventing House Republican extremists from forcing a government shutdown."
Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy has already faced blowback from conservatives within his party this year for cutting a deal with the White House, agreeing to budget levels in return for preventing the U.S. from hitting the debt ceiling. He argues a CR will give Republicans more time to negotiate the spending cuts they hope to make. And some Republicans agree that shutting down the government is the wrong strategy to enact their demands.
"When we shut down our government, we communicate to our adversaries that America is vulnerable and threaten the security of our nation," Republican Rep. David Joyce, who oversees the Homeland Security Subcommittee of the House Committee on Appropriations, said in a statement.
Continuing resolutions have increasingly become a normal course of action for the U.S. Congress in recent years.
"We've also been seeing more government shutdowns, more need to resort to temporary funding agreements, while they try and negotiate longer ones. So that's where a lot of that dysfunction comes from. It's Congress actually not carrying out the really basic responsibility of passing these bills," said Michael Thorning, director of structural democracy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, in an interview with VOA.
Supplemental funding and defense spending
Just before leaving on recess, the U.S. Senate passed its version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), authorizing funding for the U.S. military. The Senate's version of defense spending priorities differs significantly from the version passed in the House, where conservatives added restrictions on abortion for military service members and cuts to funding for transgender members of the military. Both chambers must agree on a new version to pass – a process known as reconciliation – to fund the U.S. military for the coming year.
U.S. lawmakers will also debate $40 billion in supplemental funding priorities unveiled by the Biden administration over the summer recess, including $21 billion in military and humanitarian aid for Ukraine and $12 billion in domestic disaster relief funding to address flooding in Vermont and hurricane relief in the southern United States.
Some conservative members of Congress have called for a decrease in U.S. funding for Ukraine's war against the unprovoked Russian invasion, saying the funds do not have proper oversight and would be better used to address domestic economic concerns and funding for security at U.S. borders. But the majority of U.S. lawmakers say support for Ukraine is a crucial part of America's national security strategy.
"They're really having some tough negotiations and debates just within their own party," Thorning told VOA about Republicans' policy disagreements. "That's really where the sticking point is. And I don't know that it's any sign of long-term dysfunction. I think it's really just actually a function of a very slim majority in the House."
Over the Congressional recess, McCarthy faced increasing pressure from former President Donald Trump and some of the more conservative members of the Republican party to pursue an impeachment of Biden.
"If you look at all the information we have been able to gather so far, it is a natural step forward that you would have to go to an impeachment inquiry," the House speaker told Fox News Channel host Maria Bartiromo late last month. Multiple Republican-led House committees have pursued investigations into the Biden family's foreign business dealings, his administration's immigration policies and a probe into the disastrous evacuation of Afghanistan two years ago.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul has led a series of hearings with administration officials examining the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. He has given the U.S. State Department until September 7 to provide transcribed interviews with nine of their current and former officials involved in the withdrawal or risk a subpoena.
An impeachment inquiry is the first step in the process of removing a president from office. The U.S. House of Representatives would need to vote on and pass Articles of Impeachment to trigger a trial of the president in the U.S. Senate. Conservative Republicans so far have failed to marshal enough moderate Republican votes for passage. The House committees have not yet produced evidence that Biden meddled in the business dealings of his son or his son's partners.
Health of leadership
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell experienced a second concerning health episode in public view last month, freezing for 30 seconds at a press conference. The 81-year-old lawmaker's health has declined since he suffered a concussion earlier this year and reportedly began using a wheelchair in the halls of the U.S. Senate. A major proponent of U.S. aid to Ukraine, McConnell will be closely watched when he returns to Senate press conferences this week to see if he will continue to be a major player within the party.
Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein also continues her health struggles, after rebuffing calls for her to step down earlier this year when a serious case of shingles left her unable to serve on the influential Senate Judiciary Committee.
House Majority Leader Steve Scalise announced over the summer recess that he has been diagnosed with blood cancer. Scalise – who made an impressive recovery after suffering gunshot wounds during a practice for the Congressional baseball game in 2017 – said the cancer appears "very treatable."