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Congress returns to try to avoid a partial government shutdown. Here's its to-do list

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has set a Christmas deadline for passing the roughly $2 trillion spending bill that includes the bulk of President Biden's agenda.
Jemal Countess
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Getty Images for SEIU
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has set a Christmas deadline for passing the roughly $2 trillion spending bill that includes the bulk of President Biden's agenda.

Lawmakers return to Washington, D.C., with a familiar end-of-the-year agenda — a pileup of important bills and not a lot of time to act on them.

The most immediate issue is avoiding a partial government shutdown at the end of the week, but they also need to address the nation's borrowing authority and annual defense policy bill.

Democrats have also set Christmas as their own deadline for passing the roughly $2 trillion domestic spending bill that includes climate, health care and child care programs. This massive bill is the second piece of President Biden's "Build Back Better" agenda. (The $1 trillion infrastructure bill was signed earlier this month and Biden has begun an effort to tout its value to communities around the country.)

Congress is supposed to start its winter recess on Dec. 11, but with everything on its plate, most people expect both chambers to stay at the Capitol longer this year.

Here's a rundown of Congress' to-do list:

Government funding

Federal agencies run out of money at midnight on Friday. No agreement seems within reach on the dozens of spending bills that fund the federal government. Instead, lawmakers are working on kicking the can down the road for some period of time. Republican and Democratic appropriators are crafting a stopgap funding bill, referred to as a continuing resolution, that extends current spending levels. But House and Senate committees haven't agreed to a how long they want a short-term bill to last.

One source familiar with the discussions tells NPR that negotiators are coalescing around a CR that goes into late January or potentially into February so the two chambers can have more time to work out an agreement on full year funding bills.

Debt limit

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen notified Congress earlier this month that they have until Dec. 15 to increase the nation's borrowing limit or risk defaulting on the country's bills. The issue caused a partisan standoff earlier this fall, but ultimately Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., agreed to a deal that avoided any default for weeks. He and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., have held some talks about the issue but there is no clear path to address the issue.

Republicans are again urging Democrats to attach a debt limit hike to a budget reconciliation package and pass it on their own, since they can approve a bill using rules that avoid a GOP filibuster. But many Democrats oppose this and say it could be tough to finish that bill in time.

"If the Republicans want to Scrooge out on us and increase people's interest rates and make it hard to make car payments, go ahead and make that case. We're going to stop them from doing that," Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said on ABC's This Week on Sunday.

It's possible that the deadline for needing to act could slip into early next year, depending on Treasury's receipts, but leaders say they intend to act in December.

Defense authorization bill

Congress has approved the annual policy bill for almost 60 years. As usual, the House and Senate are working on different versions. This year's bill includes reforms to the system for prosecuting allegations of sexual assault in the military, a pay increase for servicemen and women and measures to increase military support for Ukraine amid a new threat from Russia. It can take months to negotiate a final deal between the two chambers and the chairs of both the House and Senate armed services panels have pressed leaders to make it a priority. The House approved its version and the Senate is expected to vote this week on its bill.

Build Back Better spending bill

After House passage of the roughly $2 trillion package last week, several Senate Democrats indicated they want to see some changes.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., opposes the four weeks of paid family leave in the House bill, so that is expected to be stripped out. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., wants to expand Medicare coverage to include vision and dental benefits. The immigration provisions that would provide work permits for those who entered the country since January 2011 and prevent them from being deported is being reviewed by the Senate parliamentarian to see if the changes to the law meet the limits of what can be included in a budget reconciliation package. Democrats are using the reconciliation process to get around a Republican filibuster.

There's also continued debate over a tax deduction aimed at states with high state and local property taxes. Some Democrats, including Sanders, warn that the way that House structured the deduction could end up giving many wealthy Americans a significant tax break, and would run afoul of campaign pledges to make the rich pay their fair share.

Schumer set a Christmas timetable to finish the bill and send it to the president, but if the Senate changes the bill, as expected, the House will have to vote on it again. Democrats worry that it will become more difficult to pass if debate spills over into 2022, an election year. They want to complete action on the domestic spending bill that includes climate, health care, child care programs so they can campaign on those policies and the infrastructure bill the president signed recently.

One unknown factor as House and Senate members travel back to Washington — news of a new coronavirus variant. Biden met with his COVID task force members Sunday and is urging those who have not been vaccinated to get the shot and for those eligible to get a booster.

Over the summer the administration was criticized for not moving quickly enough to address the spread of the delta variant. There's no indication so far that the omicron variant will be more transmissible or cause serious symptoms, but lawmakers are mindful of continuing to address the pandemic, and any potential economic impacts.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Deirdre Walsh
Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.