WASHINGTON — With the midterm elections nearly behind Congress, but looming large, lawmakers will return to Capitol Hill on Tuesday to take up unfinished government appropriations. But that’s not everything that might come up in the lame duck.
Here are three items to watch:
1. Government shutdown. President Donald Trump signed a large spending bill for most of government, including defense, in September. But Congress punted with a continuing resolution through Dec. 7 on seven other funding bills, for the Department of Homeland Security, the State Department and other federal agencies, as well as foreign aid.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Wednesday told reporters he wants to wrap up unfinished appropriations, and that he didn’t want to risk a government shutdown over a border wall fight.
The Senate appropriations package includes $1.6 billion for Trump’s border wall, but that’s far short of what the president wanted. The House, which enjoys a wider Republican majority, included $5 billion in its package.
It’s hard to say whether the president will force the issue. Asked by reporters Wednesday, Trump would not commit to avoiding a partial government shutdown, but his rhetoric was milder as he pointed to his deployment of troops to the border.
“We need the wall,” he said. “Many Democrats know we need the wall. And we’re just going to have to see what happens. I mean, I will be fighting for it.”
While McConnell has downplayed the likelihood of reaching a broader bipartisan agreement on immigration, the Senate Appropriations Committee’s top Democrat, Patrick Leahy, of Vermont, signaled to reporters Monday he was open to negotiations of some kind.
“If it’s wall or nothing, they’re going to get nothing,” Leahy said Monday during a conference call with reporters.
Still, Leahy appeared eager to build on the committee’s successful passage of the last appropriations package and get the remaining bills done without another continuing resolution or a shutdown.
“I think a government shutdown, all that does is not only waste taxpayer dollars but waste enormous amount of private dollars," Leahy said, adding: “Plus the fact that we look like idiots to the rest of the world.”
2. Yemen. The Trump administration decided last week to stop refueling Saudi-led coalition aircraft engaged in the Yemen civil war, but critics on Capitol Hill plan to press ahead with a broader resolution to end all support for the war.
“I’m glad that the Trump administration is ending U.S. refueling of Saudi aircraft in Yemen’s devastating war. U.S. participation in this conflict is unauthorized and unconstitutional and must end completely," Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders said in a statement Friday.
Sanders said he will bring to a vote his war powers resolution to compel an end to U.S. military support to Saudi forces in Yemen, "as a matter of law, not simply as a matter of the president’s discretion.”
California Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna, a House Armed Services Committee member, signaled he was not backing off his measure, which is akin to the Sanders resolution.
“Congress has won a major victory in convincing the Admin to end US refueling in the Saudi-led war in Yemen," Khanna said in a tweet on Friday. “We now need to memorialize and confirm the decision. We must pass #HConRes138 to ensure that all US involvement is shut off and reclaim Congressional authority.”
Fueled in part by the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the mushrooming humanitarian disaster in Yemen, Sanders has added 13 co-sponsors, including Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee.
“We should not be allied with a dictatorship like Saudi Arabia who is leading the effort in that war,” Sanders said in a Reddit interview. “Further, in my view, that war is unconstitutional because Congress, which has the war-making authority in our form of government, has not authorized it. Let’s get out of Yemen as soon as possible and help bring humanitarian help to that struggling country.”
Sens. Todd Young, R-Ind., and Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., warned last week they will take unspecified action when the Senate returns if the U.S. does not end air refueling of Saudi coalition aircraft operating in Yemen.
The duo, who also have supported suspending arms sales to Saudi Arabia, have questioned Pompeo’s certification in September that Riyadh was taking steps to end the war, alleviate the humanitarian crisis and protect civilians.
3. Defense Department nominations. The Senate Armed Services Committee will hold a confirmation hearing Dec. 4 for nominees to lead U.S. Central Command and U.S. Special Operations Command.
The Central Command nominee, Marine Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr., would replace Army Gen. Joseph Votel, and the Special Operations Command nominee, Army Lt. Gen. Richard Clarke, would replace Army Gen. Raymond “Tony” Thomas, after he and Votel retire next year.
Clarke and McKenzie are currently assigned to the Joint Staff; Clarke as director for strategic plans and policy, and McKenzie as staff director.
Yemen could be a hot topic for the Central Command nominee. Lawmakers might also probe beyond recent headlines into the Pentagon’s decision to deny a request for an aircraft carrier for the Gulf to beef up U.S. deterrence against Iran — or about the mission in Syria drifting from the Islamic State group to Tehran.
For Special Operations Command, lawmakers could follow up on the military’s punishment of six troops, including an Air Force two-star general, for their roles in the October 2017 Niger ambush that resulted in the deaths of four American and four Nigerien soldiers — a decision that’s been questioned by retired senior officers.
Clarke served as the director of operations for Joint Special Operations Command from 2009-2011, to include the May 2011 special operations mission in Pakistan to capture or kill al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. Prior to that, Clarke spent six years with the 75th Ranger Regiment on assignments in Europe, Iraq and Afghanistan.
McKenzie recently had a more public stage and presented the military’s update regarding ongoing operations during Pentagon news briefings with press secretary Dana White.
Prior to that, McKenzie led combat deployments to Afghanistan in 2004 and Iraq from 2005-2006; and he returned to Afghanistan in 2009 to lead stabilization efforts. In 2010, he became the director for strategy, plans and policy for U.S. Central Command, and in 2014 he assumed command of U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Central Command.
Tara Copp in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.