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Congress returns from holidays facing battles over spending, foreign aid and immigration

Congress faces early 2024 shutdown deadlines
Congress faces 2 shutdown deadlines in coming weeks 05:19

Washington — After a chaotic and unproductive year, a divided Congress returns this week to face a number of big fights that lawmakers punted to 2024, including battles over government funding, foreign aid and immigration.

The most pressing challenge is a pair of fast-approaching funding deadlines to prevent a government shutdown. Congressional leaders announced Sunday they had reached a deal on an overall spending level for the remainder of 2024, putting them one step closer to avoiding another shutdown. 

Congress is also trying to strike a deal on border security and immigration policy that has become central to passing more aid for Ukraine, with lawmakers continuing talks over an emergency spending package that the Biden White House has requested.

The Senate is back in session on Monday, and House lawmakers return to work on Tuesday. Here are the major issues facing both chambers in the new year. 

Another government shutdown 

Congress has repeatedly relied on short-term funding extensions to keep government agencies operating amid its inability to pass the dozen appropriations bills that fund them for an entire fiscal year. 

In September, Congress reached a last-minute deal to fund the government through mid-November just hours before it was set to shutdown. Facing the November deadline, House Speaker Mike Johnson, a Louisiana Republican, made the unusual decision to stagger the expiration dates of federal funding

Veterans programs, transportation, housing, agriculture and energy departments are funded through Jan. 19, while funding for eight other appropriations bills, including defense, expires Feb. 2. 

The deadlines give Congress just days to reach a deal that has eluded them for months, with lawmakers in both chambers unable to agree on how to pass the spending bills.

Hard-right members in the House have been adamantly opposed to passing the short-term funding extensions, known as continuing resolutions, preferring instead to fund the government through 12 appropriations bills.

But so far none of the annual appropriations bills have made it through both the GOP-controlled House and the Democratic-led Senate. The House has passed seven individual spending bills, while the Senate passed three that were wrapped into one package.

The $1.66 trillion deal includes $886 billion for defense and $772.7 billion for non-defense spending, Democratic leaders said. 

The topline is slightly above the $1.59 trillion that was reached in a bipartisan deal last year and includes changes to discretionary spending that was part of a side agreement between President Biden and then-House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. It cuts $6.1 billion in COVID-19 spending and accelerates cuts to IRS funding. 

Johnson and his predecessor, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy of California, both had to rely on Democrats to get last year's continuing resolutions through the lower chamber. The move led to the end of McCarthy's speakership. Johnson vowed not to take up another short-term continuing resolution. 

"It continues to be my intention that the House and Senate complete action on full-year bills ahead of the January 19 and February 2 deadlines provided for in the last continuing resolution," Johnson wrote to his GOP colleagues last month. "I do not intend to have the House consider any further short-term extensions." 

However, Johnson previously said that he'd support a full-year continuing resolution if no deal is reached by the deadlines. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, called that option "simply unacceptable" because it would effectively cut defense spending. 

Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat and chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, had similar criticisms, saying a full-year stopgap bill would cause major disruptions across the government. She called on Johnson to stick to the spending deal reached months ago by Mr. Biden and McCarthy, who retired at the end of the year

The deal, the Fiscal Responsibility Act, included across-the-board spending cuts that go into effect on May 1 unless Congress passes the full-year appropriations bills. Hard-right Republicans have repeatedly demanded steeper cuts than what was agreed upon.

Johnson said the agreement announced Sunday "will not satisfy everyone" because it doesn't "cut as much spending as many of us would like," but touted it as the "most favorable budget agreement Republicans have achieved in over a decade."

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, both of New York, also framed the deal as a win for Democrats. 

The agreement will "allow us to keep the investments for hardworking American families secured by the legislative achievements of President Biden and Congressional Democrats," they said in a statement Sunday. 

They said they "made clear to Speaker Mike Johnson that Democrats will not support including poison pill policy changes in any of the twelve appropriations bills put before the Congress." 

Border security and Ukraine funding 

Funding for Ukraine and Israel is also at stake.

Mr. Biden's request for $106 billion in foreign aid has been stalled for weeks amid demands from Republicans — even those supportive of Ukraine assistance — that the package include stricter border security provisions and immigration policy changes. Meanwhile, Democrats and the White House want Ukraine and Israel aid paired

A small bipartisan group of senators has been meeting to strike a deal. The White House warned before Christmas that the U.S. would run out of funding by the end of the year to assist Ukraine in its war against Russia. 

The House passed a Republican-backed bill in November to provide Israel with $14.3 billion in emergency aid as it fights its war against Hamas. But the bill was dead on arrival in the Senate because it conditioned the aid on cutting an equivalent amount from IRS funding. 

Even if an eventual deal makes it through the Senate, it's likely to hit opposition in the House, where far-right Republicans oppose any additional aid for Ukraine and want any deal on border security to include provisions in a bill known as H.R. 2 that passed the House last year without any Democratic support. 

"With the exception of the already passed and fully offset Israel aid package, the House must be closed for business on any supplemental spending for Ukraine or any other foreign nation unless America's own border is fully secured with significant and verifiable improvement and the cost is entirely offset," the House Freedom Caucus said before the holidays. 

Johnson, during a trip to the U.S.-Mexico border last week with dozens of House Republicans, said H.R. 2 was "the necessary ingredient." 

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