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Congress returns from a holiday break with a full plate of must-pass legislation

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Congress returns from a holiday break with a full plate of must-pass legislation. Democrats face some pretty big deadlines during a make or break month to pass the rest of President Biden's Build Back Better agenda.

NPR's Deirdre Walsh, who covers Congress is here to discuss whether they can get it all done. Ticktock, ticktock, Deirdre. Congress has just a few days to meet a funding deadline. So are they going to avoid a shutdown?

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Well, they have this tradition pretty much every holiday season. They leave important things until the very last minute. They have until Friday at midnight to pass a funding deadlines, or federal agencies could see a partial shutdown. No one wants that to happen, but there's still no agreement on the spending bills that fund all these federal programs. So Congress is going to do what it usually does - kick the can down the road for a little bit. It's unclear right now if they're going to pass a funding bill that keeps current funding levels in place for a couple of weeks or maybe for a couple of months. They don't have a lot of time to decide and get a bill through the House and the Senate and to the president's desk before midnight on Friday, which is that first deadline.

MARTINEZ: Sometimes I think they're all journalists because we all have the same kind of feelings about deadlines. So what other issues need to be wrapped up in the next month?

WALSH: There are a couple of big ones. Congress needs to increase the country's credit limit so it can pay its bills. The Treasury secretary, Janet Yellen, has warned that if Congress doesn't do this by mid-December, it could risk throwing the country into default. There was already a big showdown over this issue in the fall. There was an agreement between Republicans and Democrats on a short-term measure. There are some talks, but there's really no clear plan for how to deal with the debt limit. Here's Minnesota Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar yesterday on ABC. She was talking about what it would mean if the country defaulted.

(SOUNDBITE OF ABC BROADCAST)

AMY KLOBUCHAR: You know, 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. Make that case. We're going to stop them from doing that.

WALSH: So they still have to deal with that issue in the next couple of weeks. Congress also has to pass the annual defense authorization bill. This is a big, major bill they pass every year. This one includes reforms to how sexual assault allegations are prosecuted in the military and includes a pay increase for servicemen and women and also addresses extremism in the military ranks.

MARTINEZ: What about the $2 trillion domestic spending bill that the House passed right before the break? Where does that stand?

WALSH: You know, they still have a lot of work to do on it, and there's going to be some changes. You know, we've talked a lot about West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin. He opposes the four weeks of paid family leave and the version the House passed, so that's expected to come out. Senator Bernie Sanders also wants to make some changes. He wants to actually expand Medicare coverage to include vision and dental benefits. There's also debate over some tax provisions. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has set a deadline to finish the debate and pass this bill by Christmas. But if Democrats make changes in the Senate, as we expect them to do, the House is going to have to vote again on it. So on top of all the things we just talked about and this, probably means Congress is going to have to stick around a little bit longer and work right up until Christmas.

MARTINEZ: The new omicron variant has now been identified in North America in Canada. How could the arrival of this new health threat, do you think, throw a wrench in the Democrats' plans?

WALSH: You know, it really is kind of an X factor right now. You know, we've seen in the past with the delta variant over the summer that it could force Democrats to change course. If there are some things they need to do or economic fallout from a new COVID threat, they're going to have to change course and change their message. Right now, they're trying to work up until the last minute to sell the different components of this big domestic spending bill, this Build Back Better agenda. But it's unclear whether Americans will see that agenda resonating and assisting their own sort of personal economic situation. Right now, the administration is addressing the new variant, and the president is encouraging more people to get vaccinated and for people eligible for boosters to get one. But on top of inflation fears, Democrats may really need to sort of change course and change their message to try to connect how what they're doing in Washington is really addressing what people are feeling back at home.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Deirdre Walsh. Thank you very much.

WALSH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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