Democrats Race Against Time : The NPR Politics Podcast When the new Congress takes office in January, Democrats will lose control of the House of Representatives. Until that happens, they have a slew of legislative priorities, ranging from increasing the debt ceiling to codifying the right to same-sex and interracial marriages.

This episode: White House correspondent Asma Khalid, and congressional correspondents Claudia Grisales & Deirdre Walsh.

This episode was produced by Elena Moore and Casey Morell. It was edited by Eric McDaniel. Our executive producer is Muthoni Muturi. Fact-checking by Katherine Swartz.

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Democrats Race Against Time

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(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIG TOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: I'm Claudia Grisales. I cover Congress.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: I'm Deirdre Walsh. I also cover Congress.

KHALID: And today on the show, we're going to talk about what might happen during the lame-duck session of Congress, which, by the way, I've always thought is an interesting word choice - lame duck.

GRISALES: (Laughter).

KHALID: But anyhow, Republicans will control the House of Representatives next year, but there are still another several weeks during which Democrats will have full control of Congress, full control of government. And so I wanted us to spend some time today talking about what they might do in these next few weeks. Let's start with funding the government. They need to do something in this next month just to ensure that we don't have a government shutdown.

WALSH: Right. They do. The current funding resolution expires December 16. Congress pretty much manages every holiday season to try to ruin it for all of us who cover it.

KHALID: Right.

GRISALES: (Laughter).

WALSH: And so they have to come up with a deal to fund federal agencies through the rest of the fiscal year. This is all the various, you know, dozen appropriations bills that fund various government functions. On top of that, the president sent up a request for additional money for Ukraine aid and for COVID relief aid. Both of those issues have been pretty controversial. In the past, there's been bipartisan support for supporting our ally, Ukraine, but increasingly, Republicans have pushed back. So I think the hope is - from the Biden administration - that they approve this money now as opposed to avoid a fight in the next year when there's a divided Capitol.

KHALID: But this additional COVID aid funding, my recollection is that the last time the Biden White House asked for more COVID money, Congress did not approve that.

WALSH: Right. And I think it's going to be tough road ahead for them to get it this year as well.

KHALID: OK. I want to also ask you both about something else that's a little wonky, known as the debt ceiling. That's the cap on how much the government can borrow. It becomes sort of a political football every time it needs to be raised. But my understanding is some House Republicans have already indicated that they intend to put pressure on the Biden White House, that in order to get any sort of increase to this debt ceiling, they want to, you know, have some concessions made. I'm curious if this is something that we will see come up during this lame-duck session of Congress? Any thoughts on what might happen there?

GRISALES: Yes.

WALSH: We have seen this movie before.

GRISALES: Yes (laughter).

WALSH: When President Obama was president and Republicans controlled the House, there was a battle royale about what kinds of cuts in federal spending they would accept in return for increasing the nation's borrowing limit. So there's talk about trying to raise the debt ceiling during the lame duck this year to avoid the fight because the Treasury Department is saying that the country isn't expected to hit the debt ceiling until early next year.

KHALID: OK.

WALSH: So Democrats want to avoid the drama. And I think, you know, the presumptive incoming speaker, House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy, privately would like to avoid it too. It's a battle that is really tricky for him to maneuver because a lot of House conservatives are talking about cutting things like Social Security and Medicare that are very popular programs with a lot of, you know, Republican voters. So I think that a lot of people on the Hill want to try to avoid this fight again because last time it threatened to default and would definitely have a major impact on the economy. Right now, the top Senate Republican, Mitch McConnell, shot down the idea of doing it this year. So I don't know if they can get a bipartisan deal or if maybe that's the sort of initial dance in some kind of negotiation. But I think we're going to be heading into a fight on this next year.

GRISALES: Yeah. It's going to be very tricky because House Republicans are dealing with such a thin margin, and so they were having issues reaching a deal on this when Democrats were in control of both chambers. We saw quite the game of chicken between Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. And so now if they're looking at dealing with this next year with a thin majority of Republicans in control in the House, it's even more concerning. But again, there's very limited time on the clock here. And Republicans don't seem interested in working this out this year.

KHALID: All right. So there's also some policy bills it looks like Congress is going to try to pass in these next few weeks. There was movement, for example, on a bill to codify same-sex marriage in some form were it to potentially, say, be overturned by the Supreme Court.

GRISALES: Yeah. So that had pretty significant support in the Senate. We saw 50 Democrats sign on and vote for this legislation along with 12 Republicans. So that was a pretty strong showing in the Senate. And, of course, the House has taken this up as well. So it's positive. Now, they were looking at trying to address it before the Thanksgiving break, but it looks like now they're going to be taking that up after this break. But it looks like the support is there to move this legislation forward. That might be one of the issues we see gain traction, at least in these last few weeks.

WALSH: I mean, I think it's really remarkable that this bill got a dozen votes...

GRISALES: Right.

WALSH: ...From Republicans. This is an issue that, you know, in the past has been, you know, a lot more controversial. But I think the country and Congress has changed a lot on the issue of same-sex marriage. This bill also codifies protections for interracial marriages. But I think it just shows you that the sort of sea change in our society being reflected a little bit more slowly by our congressional leaders. So we expect to see Biden sign that before the end of the year.

KHALID: But there's no indication that you have that Congress would or could enact any sort of similar policy around abortion access. I mean, the numbers just aren't there for that. Is that right?

WALSH: No. I mean, there was an attempt to try to move something before the election. There are some Republicans who support codifying abortion rights in some fashion, but they just don't have the numbers. They would need 10 Republicans to get over a filibuster in the Senate, and I don't see that happening.

KHALID: All right. So any other policy issues we could anticipate Congress might address in the next couple of weeks?

GRISALES: So the Electoral Count Act - reforming that has been one issue that both...

KHALID: OK. Remind us what that is.

GRISALES: And that is basically to address the weaknesses we saw with the January 6 attack, that is, when former President Trump tried to exploit some weaknesses in that law, tried to move the vice president's role at that time - this is Vice President Mike Pence - from a ceremonial role to one where he could try and stop the certification of these election results that day. And so both chambers have moved legislation on this effort to try and strengthen that, take away any questions about the vice president's ceremonial role, for example, and address other issues when there's debate in different states over results and how to address that and raising the threshold for objections to results as we saw on January 6 playing out before the attack. And so this is going to be something that looks like it has significant bipartisan support or could pass out of both chambers by the end of the year and head to Biden's desk as well.

WALSH: Speaking of January 6, Claudia and I are going to have a lot of reading to do...

GRISALES: Right.

WALSH: ...In December. We are expecting the House select committee on January 6 to finally release their report, which will include recommendations. Reforming the Electoral Count Act is one of those, but we expect there to be others. We also expect there to be, I think, a lot more tidbits...

GRISALES: Yeah.

WALSH: ...About what they've learned in their investigation, things that may not have been revealed in the public hearings. They're still talking to witnesses, and they're still doing interviews.

KHALID: All right. Well, let's take a quick break, and we'll be back in a moment.

And we're back. And two top House Republicans, Representative James Comer and Representative Jim Jordan, who are expected to chair the House oversight and judiciary committees next year, are already touting their investigations into the Biden family.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAMES COMER: The president's participation in enriching his family is, in a word, abuse of the highest order. I want to be clear. This is an investigation of Joe Biden, and that's where the committee will focus in this next Congress.

KHALID: That voice was Representative Comer. And, Deirdre, I want you to help us understand exactly what Republicans are planning.

WALSH: Yeah. I talked to Comer, actually, the night before they put out this interim report and had this press conference. He's the incoming chair, as you said, of the House oversight committee. Republicans vowed that they were going to investigate and have major oversight of the Biden administration if they were to take over the House of Representatives. They talked about a lot of different investigations - the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the origins of the coronavirus, border security. But they made a decision to have a press conference basically showcasing what I think their first priority is, which I think is sort of interesting, which is to investigate the Biden family.

And Comer said to me that what they've found from whistleblowers that they've interviewed - and they haven't interviewed these people on the record because they don't have subpoena power yet, but they will have it in the next Congress - is they feel like they have evidence that there was influence peddling going on, that Hunter Biden had multiple businesses that had dealings with foreign governments. He cited Ukraine. We obviously heard a lot about Hunter Biden's role in a Ukrainian energy company during President Trump's first impeachment. And there were people from the Obama State Department at the time that had concerns about Hunter Biden's role in that energy company at the time.

So there's public knowledge about what he was doing at the time. But Comer was basically comparing Hunter Biden's business dealings to those of Michael Flynn. People may remember that Michael Flynn was, for a very short time, President Trump's national security adviser, who was forced to resign because, during the transition between the Obama and Trump administrations, he was talking to the Russian ambassador. He also - which was inappropriate (laughter) - and he also has done some foreign lobbying.

Comer promised that he was going to show all kinds of evidence. I'm not sure we've seen a ton of evidence from them yet. They say they have bank records. They say they have emails. I think that we have to be skeptical about what they have and whether they actually show any kind of link between Hunter Biden and Joe Biden when he was vice president or shortly after. But I think there's also a risk for House Republicans because, as Claudia was talking about earlier, they have such a slim margin in the House of Representatives.

And the folks who ultimately gave them this slim margin are from very purple districts, even some blue districts in places like New York, where voters elected the Republican candidates because they were talking about inflation. They were talking about needing to respond to pocketbook issues. And going after the president's son, who may or may have not had some improper business dealings without solid evidence that there is a link to the president himself, isn't the top priority of a lot of voters. And I think some moderate House Republicans may have some heartburn over this issue, and we'll just have to see.

GRISALES: And also, we know that the Justice Department has already started their look into Hunter Biden and his business dealings. So Republicans, in essence, will be arriving late to the scene with this investigation. So it will be a challenge for them to see if they can uncover any more than what DOJ has done themselves.

KHALID: And, you know, to your earlier point, Deirdre, the White House seems to be already dismissing this all as, essentially, just political theater. I'm going to read you a statement here from Ian Sams, who's with the White House office of counsel to the president. He said that instead of working with President Biden to address issues important to the American people, like lower costs, congressional Republicans' top priority is to go after President Biden with politically motivated attacks chock-full of long-debunked conspiracy theories. They are essentially dismissing this as a waste of time and resources on, quote, "political revenge."

WALSH: And, you know, I talked to one of the top Democrats on the House oversight, Gerry Connolly. There's going to be an election to figure out who the top Democrat on that panel is going to be. That is probably going to be the most high-profile committee in the House of Representatives next year. It is sort of ground zero for what they're going to be doing because it's going to be hard for them to actually pass legislation, so oversight is really going to be driving the agenda next year. And Connolly said essentially sort of what the White House is saying, that this is all political. And he compared it to previous attempts when Republicans controlled the House when they went after Hillary Clinton for Benghazi and when they went after then-Attorney General Eric Holder for a fast-and-furious investigation about a gun-trafficking issue. But Connolly also admitted that Democrats aren't ready for what's coming and that they have to be ready - even though they don't think that there's anything there - that they need to respond, and they need to have people on the committee that have courtroom experience, people who are going to be able to essentially cross-examine any witnesses or whistleblowers or Republican witnesses to sort of bring to light whether there are inconsistencies or whether there's any real evidence and be able to go toe-to-toe with a lot of the hard-liners from the House Republican Conference that are on that committee. It is a committee full of very conservative House Republicans.

GRISALES: Yeah. And also, there's other members on that panel, such as Jamie Raskin of Maryland, who we've seen play defense with some of these strong Trump allies, if you will. And so that's another member who's vying to be the ranking Democrat on that committee. And so that's going to be quite a battle on that committee when it comes to those investigations. And also, you mentioned Jim Jordan. That's going to be another committee where Democrats are really going to have to play defense. Earlier this month, he warned that the FBI and DOJ will be targets of their investigations. They dropped, like, a thousand-page report about whistleblower accounts, saying there was a rampant culture of unaccountability and manipulation and abuse at the highest levels. So this is yet another big area that Republicans are going to try and go after with their committees and subpoena power.

KHALID: Well, I guess we will see what exactly they do in the coming year. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.

GRISALES: I'm Claudia Grisales. I cover Congress.

WALSH: I'm Deirdre Walsh. I also cover Congress.

KHALID: And thank you all, as always, for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIG TOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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