Between now and Christmas, Congress will only be in session for 3 total weeks — the last full week of November and the first two weeks of December.
What happens both while Congress is meeting and when they are on their extended recess for the holidays will be critical for the fate of the House Democratic majority in 2022.
Let’s first take on the challenge for Congress in the three weeks when they will be in Washington between now and the end of the year.
* Find a way to pass President Joe Biden’s $1.75 trillion social safety net bill, with disagreements between House liberals and Senate moderates still largely unresolved.
* Avert a government shutdown. Remember that Congress kicked the debt ceiling increase down the road in early October. But, the government is now set to run out of money to pay off its debts on December 3 — and Democrats in the House and Senate will need to decide quickly whether or not they are willing to pass the increase on a purely partisan vote. (Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has previously insisted Republicans won’t vote to do so.)
* Fund the government past December 3. Just like with the debt limits, Congress, in early October, delayed a government shutdown — but only until December 3. Which means that if an agreement can’t be reached, we could very well be looking at another government shutdown sometime next month.
Add it all up and you see that Congress has not only a massive amount to do but also very little evidence that any of these legislative problems have been fixed since Congress last addressed them.
What Congress does — and fails to do — will almost certainly have ramifications well into next year. If, for example, Democrats are not able to get the bill containing the bulk of Biden’s first term domestic agenda passed despite their slim majorities in both the House and Senate, they will affirm already-lingering doubts about their ability to get things done. If the government shuts down, it would be an absolute political cataclysm with uncertain political impacts. Should the country default on its debts, there’s a very real possibility of our credit rating being lowered — a disastrous outcome for an economy still-trying to dig out from the effects of the pandemic.
In short: There are a whole lot of minefields for Congress in the next month — and no clear map to guide them through it.
So that’s what’s going on in Congress. But what will happen outside of Congress may well have even larger consequences.
See, this period — between Thanksgiving and the new year — has traditionally been a time when members of Congress do some introspection and make decisions about whether or not to run again. As Paul Kane of the Washington Post wrote in mid-October:
“From 2011 through 2020, the final two months of the off year and January of the election year have prompted the most retirement announcements for members of the House, according to data compiled by Ballotpedia...
“…Back in 2009, the last period when Democrats controlled both majorities and the White House, their party managed to avoid an early rush of House members announcing they wouldn’t run for reelection.
“Then, starting in late November through the middle of December, four veteran Democrats announced they would not run the following year, including John S. Tanner, an 11-term Democrat who founded the Blue Dog Coalition of centrist Democrats.
“All four of those seats flipped to Republicans, with Tanner’s west Tennessee seat turning into a deeply safe district for the most conservative lawmakers. All told, Democrats suffered a net loss of 63 seats in 2010, leaving them in the minority the following eight years.”
Or, as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy put it in mid-October: “Once you get past Thanksgiving and members go home, and they’re Democrats and they’ve been challenged before and they’re going to get beat up, Congress is not that great.”
At the moment, Democrats have 14 open seats, with members either running for another office or retiring while Republicans have 10.
But, even the relative equality in those numbers is deceiving. Among the Democrats’ open seats are two (Illinois’ 17th and Wisconsin’s 3rd) that Donald Trump carried over Joe Biden in 2020 and another four (Florida’s 13th, Ohio’s 13th, Pennsylvania’s 17th and Texas 34th) where Biden beat Trump by 4 points or less. The Republican open seats are, by and large, in strongly conservative areas where Democrats have little chance of a pickup.
What Democrats fear — and, if history is any guide, what is coming for them — is a slew of retirements within their ranks of members who hold marginal seats. That concern reached panic level in the wake of last week’s election results where a clear Republican wind was blowing in the country — as Republicans won the Virginia governor’s race and very nearly knocked out New Jersey Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy.
“If you’re a Democrat and President Biden won your seat by 16 points, you’re in a competitive race next year,” McCarthy said the day after the 2021 elections. “You are no longer safe. … It’ll be more than 70 Democrats that will be competitive.”
Of course, Speaker Nancy Pelosi is doing absolutely everything she can to keep wavering members in the House for at least another term. But, there’s only so much any one can do to influence such a personal decision.
Add it all up and you get this: The six-week sprint between now and the end of the year is, without question, the most critical period for Democrats as they try to keep control of the House in the 2022 midterms. They have to run a gauntlet of difficult-to-pass legislation and members contemplating their future plans. It’s not going to be easy.