Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is aiming to go out on a high note as Democrats seek a string of high-profile legislative victories in the waning weeks of the 117th Congress that will mark the end of her two-decade run at the top of the party.
The lame-duck session offers Democrats a final shot at notching policy wins before Republicans take control of the House next year, and party leaders have packed it full of weighty proposals touching on gay rights, immigration reform, COVID-19 aid, Ukraine funding and efforts to strengthen America’s election systems.
The ambitious list not only makes this year’s lame duck potentially among the most momentous in modern memory, but would also enable Pelosi to go out championing issues that have defined her long leadership career.
Allies say that’s no accident.
“I don’t think it is ever the case that the management and the workflow of the United States Congress under the leadership of Speaker Pelosi is ever left to chance or coincidence,” said Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.). “More than anything, this final group of bills are a reflection of the extraordinary amount of work that has been done in this Congress under the Speaker’s leadership.”
Congress last week already rushed through contentious legislation to impose a labor agreement on clashing rail operators and their unionized workers — a rare bipartisan compromise that averted a railroad shutdown. That, combined with a host of other pressing issues — including the potential for a government shutdown next week — has heightened the stakes surrounding this year’s closing agenda.
“Lame ducks is not where they’d like to deal with big issues,” Mick Mulvaney, former budget director and chief of staff in the Trump White House, told the Fox Business Network last week. “But they don’t have any choice this year.”
Perhaps the most prominent proposal on the docket is the Respect for Marriage Act, which would provide federal protections for same-sex marriage nationwide. Those rights were explicitly denied by the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which Pelosi had fiercely opposed, breaking at the time with her White House ally in President Clinton.
For Pelosi, representing liberal San Francisco, that fight is decades in the making. And she’s made clear that sending the bill to President Biden’s desk, as the House is set to do on Tuesday, will bring a special kind of swan-song satisfaction.
“The bill ensures that, regardless of what the MAGA majority in the Supreme Court may do in the future, the federal government will never again stand in the way of marrying the person you love,” she told reporters Thursday in Washington. “I’m particularly happy because it’ll be one of the last bills that I will sign as Speaker in an enrollment ceremony.”
It won’t be the only one.
At the top of the Democrats’ must-pass list is legislation to fund the government and prevent a federal shutdown at the end of next week.
The massive package provides Pelosi and Democrats perhaps their best opportunity to adopt their eleventh-hour fiscal priorities — including new funding to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic — before the House changes hands. Pelosi has made clear Democrats are seeking to maximize their influence by demanding a lengthy spending extension — in the form of either an updated omnibus or a current-level continuing resolution (CR) — through the fiscal year.
“Passing an omnibus is our strong preference,” she said last week. “But if we can’t have a solution, we have no choice but to keep government open with a yearlong CR.”
Pelosi’s negotiating skills will be put to the test in the Senate, given that Republican support will be needed to send any spending bill to Biden’s desk. But Pelosi’s position has emboldened other Democratic leaders to hold firm in their spending demands.
“We do not want to leave that to the hands of the GOP, who are already threatening to take down our economy and hold our budget hostage,” Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.), who will rise to become the Democratic whip in the next Congress, told NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday.
Democrats are also hoping to solidify a new round of aid for Ukraine amidst Russia’s long onslaught — a push that has gained urgency given recent warnings from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who’s vying to replace Pelosi as Speaker, that Republicans would not provide Kyiv with a “blank check” when the GOP takes the majority.
“That’s an important piece, and time and time and time again we have heard recently [that] Republicans now want to condition Ukraine aid,” Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.), who will be the House Democratic Caucus chair next year, told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Monday. “So we can’t have that. We need to make sure we’re doing everything we can to stand up to the authoritarianism of Russia.”
Democrats are also on the verge of passing historic legislation to clarify the mechanisms surrounding the transfer of power from one president to the next — legislation that took on new significance following last year’s attack on the U.S. Capitol by a pro-Trump mob seeking to overturn his 2020 election defeat. The House and Senate have pushed different versions of that legislation, but even the less stringent Senate bill would mark a victory for Democrats — Pelosi in particular — who were targets of the rioters and have sought to defuse former President Trump’s false claims that the White House is rightfully his.
“Either bill would be a very, very substantial improvement in the specificity and process that is pursued under law in the electoral count of the Electoral College votes,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters last week.
In a longer-shot effort, House Democrats are also vowing to pass legislation granting new rights to undocumented immigrants brought to the country illegally as children, the so-called Dreamers. The bill has a tough road in the Senate, but highlighting that issue on their way out would mirror the Democrats’ strategy in December of 2010, which marked the first time Pelosi negotiated a lame-duck session after losing the House majority in a midterm cycle.
However their lame-duck agenda fares, Democrats say the party’s legislative victories over the last two years — a list that includes COVID-19 aid, massive infrastructure funding, gun control reform and historic climate spending — already mark a fitting finale to Pelosi’s 20 years at the helm.
“If this Congress had ended a month ago it still would have been a historic — by any measures — a historic Congress. And I think this is an important capstone,” said Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.). “A remarkable end to an even more remarkable tenure.”