US Congress returns for 'lame duck' session as House control remains unclear

Elected leaders are back on Capitol Hill with a jam-packed agenda after weeks of campaigning

A House Representative-elect at an orientation meeting in the US Capitol Building on November 14. Getty Images / AFP
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The US Congress was back in session on Monday following last week's midterm elections, though it remained unclear which party would control the House of Representatives.

The “lame duck” session runs until the new year, when winners from the midterms will be sworn in.

Democrats clinched control of the Senate at the weekend with Nevada's re-election of Catherine Cortez Masto.

In the House, the Republicans are still favoured to gain control though there remains a narrow pathway for the Democrats to keep hold of the 435-seat lower chamber. As of Monday morning, the Republicans had secured 211 seats and the Democrats 206. Vote counting is still under way in the other races and remains too close to call.

Uncertainties aside, the current Congress only has a few weeks to plough through its stacked to-do list. This includes: passing the federal budget and the National Defence Authorisation Act (NDA), which stipulates funding and defines an agenda for the Department of Defence.

If the Senate passes the NDA, it would include costs and operational limits on the F-35 aircraft programme, generally ban the use of open-air burn pits to dispose of toxic wastes, and for the first time put into effect the Captagon Act aimed at combating the drug trade linked to the Syrian regime.

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President Joe Biden signed a short-term funding bill in September, which averted a government shutdown and stalled the final budget deadline to fast-approaching December 16.

The federal budget is a must-pass piece of legislation in the lame-duck session, so Democrats may push for including additional measures in it as they face the threat of losing control of the House.

That could include additional funding for Ukraine as it fights Russia's invasion.

Last month, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who is already campaigning to become Speaker of the House if his party takes control, commented that a Republican Congress would not write a “blank cheque” for Ukraine.

Democrats have also pushed to include additional Covid-19 funding, including towards research and vaccines, but have faced a backlash from Republicans.

In July, Senate Democrats proposed an additional $21 billion “to provide the necessary resources to prepare for the next phase of the Covid-19 pandemic and to address other emerging diseases that pose a significant threat to public health.”

A bipartisan group in the Senate is also trying to use the lame-duck session to codify safe-sex marriage into protected law, a move that comes in the aftermath of the Supreme Court's June decision to scrap federal abortion rights.

The chamber moved the vote until after the November midterm elections as negotiators asked for more time to rally support.

Finally, newly-elected leaders to Congress will be using the session's final weeks for orientation before they are sworn-in at the start of 2023.

Freshman elected leaders are scheduled on Monday to attend a Committee on House Administration training programme, and on Tuesday a class photo on the steps of the Capitol.

Updated: November 14, 2022, 4:42 PM