Congress

McConnell warns of need for cooperation to complete Christmas wish list

There already may not be enough time if senators object to defense policy, spending measures

There is a backlog of legislation to move before Christmas. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The clock is ticking toward Christmas, and in one of the longest-lasting holiday traditions, a Senate majority leader is warning that without bipartisan cooperation there won’t be enough time to get all the work done before the holidays.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell opened Tuesday’s session with the 2019 version of the regular holiday warning.

The Kentucky Republican noted a backlog of measures, including the conference report on the fiscal 2020 defense authorization, the updated trade pact with Canada and Mexico, and of course appropriation bills that need to be passed by both chambers to avert a government shutdown at the end of next week, or another continuing resolution.

“As we speak, [Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby of Alabama] and appropriators in both chambers are trying to bring months of near-stalemate to a close. Last month, bipartisan, bicameral agreement was reached on subcommittee allocations. And talks continue this week on outstanding issues,” McConnell said on the floor. “I hope that our Democratic colleagues can finally stick to the terms of the budget agreement and keep partisan policy fights out of this process. That’s the only way both chambers will have a chance of being able to vote on funding bills before the end of this year.”

The House and Senate Armed Services committees released text of the final defense policy bill Monday night, jettisoning a slew of contentious provisions along the way.

White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham said if Congress passes the Pentagon policy bill, President Donald Trump would sign it into law.

New NAFTA

Speaker Nancy Pelosi joined with House Ways and Means Chairman Richard E. Neal, D-Mass., and other House Democrats Tuesday morning to announce an agreement with the Trump administration on the trade deal that would replace the North American Free Trade Agreement, known as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement.

“There’s a lot left to do for the American families we represent, if our Democratic colleagues will simply allow it. And it will certainly take a great deal of cooperation and consent right here in the Senate if we intend to consider and pass these measures before the end of the year,” McConnell said.

All this is separate from the impeachment proceedings against Trump that are going on simultaneously in the House.

McConnell declined to say precisely when the Senate would return from the holiday recess, but he added, “it’ll be right around the time the bowl games end.”

The University of Louisville is playing in the Music City Bowl on Dec. 30. The last of the bowl season games is on Monday, Jan. 6. The national championship game is a week later in New Orleans.

There were early indications that Senate Republicans and Democrats alike wanted time to review the trade agreement before bringing it up for a floor vote, meaning there could be a bit of delay after expected House passage next week.

The defense authorization, the spending bills and other extensions and routine business pending could already take up more than two session weeks if senators decided to force McConnell to overcome procedural hurdles.

McConnell announced Tuesday afternoon the Senate would not be conducting an impeachment trial or considering USMCA before the chamber breaks for Christmas. He said he would be prioritizing two pending circuit judge nominees, government funding bills and the defense authorization conference report.

Further, McConnell indicated the USMCA vote will likely come after the Trump impeachment trial.

The announcement was panned by Democrats who called it a tactic to continue accusing Democrats of stalling the USMCA because of impeachment. 

Henry Connelly, Pelosi's deputy communications director,  tweeted that McConnell not taking up the measure was “total nonsense.”

“House & Senate passed Korea, Panama, and Colombia Trade Agreements on *the same day* (Oct 12, 2011). Senator McConnell has NO excuse not to bring up the #USMCA,” he wrote. 

Coal miners

Sen. Joe Manchin III was the first out of the gate with an end-of-year demand.

The Democrat from West Virginia told reporters Tuesday that he plans to block unanimous consent on “anything and everything” going to the Senate floor unless a coal miners pensions bill gets a floor vote or gets attached to a must-pass package before the end of the year.

McConnell is the lead Republican on the miners pension legislation, so Manchin may in fact be preaching to the choir. McConnell will certainly be seeking a vehicle for the bill, especially as he moves into a reelection year in Kentucky.

“We’ve been making promises to all the thousands of people who helped build this country. And they’re going to walk out of here thinking they’re going to do extenders and everything and leave miners high and dry. That’s not going to happen,” Manchin said.

Objections do not just come from the Democratic minority. It is often members of McConnell’s own Republican Conference who threaten to filibuster spending legislation, for instance.

“Obstruction and stalemate have brought us to the eleventh hour,” McConnell said. “I hope that ... both chambers will be able to set aside Democrats’ impeachment parade long enough to get the people’s business finally finished.”

Jennifer Shutt contributed to this report.

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