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US Congress returns for lame duck with long to-do list

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Lawmakers are set to return on Monday after being away for several weeks campaigning for the crucial midterm elections.

They face a jam-packed legislative to-do list before the new congressional session begins in January.

With that in mind, Democratic leaders are eager to bring several bills to the floor for votes during the lame duck session – the period after the midterms and before the new Congress begins.

The busy agenda includes: Funding the government to avert a shutdown before the end of the calendar year, passage of the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, the annual must-pass legislation that sets the policy agenda and authorizes funding for the Department of Defense, a vote in the Senate to protect same-sex marriage and possible consideration of other key issues.

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While Democrats may have bucked the national trend, Republicans still hold a large sway in GOP-led states

 

While the House is able to pass legislation by a simple majority, Democrats in the Senate face an uphill climb given their narrow majority. With a 50-50 partisan split in the Senate, Democrats lack the votes to overcome the filibuster’s 60-vote threshold – and do not have enough support within their party to abolish the filibuster, as many are anxious to do. Therefore, major priorities for liberal voters – like the passage of legislation protecting access to abortion after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade – are expected to remain out of reach for the party for the foreseeable future.

Democrats, who currently control both chambers, are returning with a new reality in the wake of Tuesday’s election they did not expect: Key races that will determine the balance of power in the House have not been called, and CNN has not yet projected who would control the House. While Republicans still appear likely to win enough seats to control the chamber, it would likely be with a narrower margin than originally anticipated.

On Saturday, CNN projected that Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada will win reelection, meaning the Democrats will continue to control the Senate once the news session of Congress starts in January. But with a runoff election set for Georgia’s US Senate seat set for December 6, the final make-up of the chamber won’t be known until at least then.

At a news conference Sunday, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer warned of a busy lame-duck session, promising “heavy work” and “long hours,” though he declined to get into specifics, saying he first needs to talk to his caucus about their agenda.

Funding the government

Congress passed a short-term funding bill in September that is set to expire December 16, making funding the government the number one priority for Congress when they return from recess.

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Because the legislation must be passed, it could attract additional measures that Democrats want to clear during the lame duck session. For example, additional financial support for Ukraine as it continues to defend itself against Russia. While that funding has bipartisan support, some conservatives – such as Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the top House Republican who is expected to become speaker if his party eventually wins the chamber – are balking at the pricey contributions and are vowing to scrutinize more closely additional requests from the Biden administration, a dynamic that is dividing Republicans.

Democrats also want more funding for the Covid-19 pandemic, but Republicans are not likely to support that request. Democrats may also seeking more money for the Department of Justice investigation into the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.

Congress also has to pass the defense bill. Consideration of the wide-ranging bill could spark debate and a push for amendments over a variety of topics, including whether to punish Saudi Arabia for its recent decision to cut oil production.

Senate Democrats will also continue confirming judges to the federal bench nominated by President Joe Biden, a key priority for the party.

Same-sex marriage vote in the Senate

A Senate vote on codifying same-sex marriage is also on tap. In mid-September, the chamber punted on a vote until after the November midterm elections as negotiators asked for more time to lock down support – a move that could make it more likely the bill will ultimately pass the chamber.

The bipartisan group of senators working on the bill said in a statement at the time, “We’ve asked Leader Schumer for additional time and we appreciate he has agreed. We are confident that when our legislation comes to the Senate floor for a vote, we will have the bipartisan support to pass the bill.” The bill would need at least 10 Republican votes to overcome a filibuster.

Schumer has vowed to hold a vote on the bill, but the exact timing has not yet been locked in. Democrats have pushed for the vote after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, sparking fears that the court could take aim at same-sex or inter-racial marriage in the future.

Electoral Count Act

Votes are likely on bipartisan legislation that would make it harder to overturn a certified presidential election, a response to former President Donald Trump’s efforts to block the 2020 election results, which led to the siege of the Capitol. It is supported by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican. If the bill passes the Senate, it would also need to clear the House, which in September, passed its own version of the legislation.

Debt limit

Meanwhile, it’s not yet clear when exactly the nation will run up against the debt limit and it appears unlikely for now that Congress will act to raise it during the lame-duck session, especially as other must-pass bills compete for floor time. But political battle lines are already being drawn and maneuvering is underway in Washington over the contentious and high-stakes issue. Democrats are insisting it would be irresponsible to cause a damaging default over paying for bills already accrued. While Republicans are digging in and insisting that they will only approve a debt limit hike if Democrats agree to cut spending moving forward.

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At his news conference Sunday, Schumer vowed to “look at” the issue over the next few weeks, but said he needs to talk to the other members of leadership and see where the makeup of the House ultimately lands.

“The debt ceiling, of course, is something that we have to deal with. And it’s something that we will look at over the next few weeks,” Schumer said. “I have to talk to the leadership first. We don’t know where the House is going to be.”

Congress does not need to raise the nation’s borrowing limit until sometime next year, but there’s been some internal debate over whether Democrats should try to raise before the end of this year, especially if Republicans wind up in control of the House.

McCarthy thrust the issue to the forefront with comments last month that echoed those of several colleagues.

“If people want to make a debt ceiling (for a longer period of time), just like anything else, there comes a point in time where, OK, we’ll provide you more money, but you got to change your current behavior,” he said in an interview with Punchbowl News.

Minnesota Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar summed up the busy work period ahead in an interview with “CNN This Morning” on Thursday.

“In Washington, we have a bunch of things on our plate, including getting the defense bill done with Ukraine right before us and the strides that (Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky) is making against Vladimir Putin,” she said. “On our plate is the end-of-the-year budget bill to make sure we get that right, As you know the Electoral Count Act, an effort that I’m leading with (Maine Republican Sen.) Susan Collins and (West Virginia Democratic Sen.) Joe Manchin and others, so we don’t have January 6 happen again. All of that is immediately when we get back.”

CNN’s Melanie Zanona contributed to this report.

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Uyghur refugee vote by Canada MPs angers China

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OTTAWA –

The Chinese government says a motion MPs passed Wednesday to provide asylum to persecuted Uyghurs amounts to political manipulation by Canada.

MPs including Prime Mister Justin Trudeau unanimously called on Ottawa to design a program that would bring 10,000 people of Turkic origin, including Uyghurs, to Canada from countries other than China.

They passed a motion that acknowledges reports that Uyghurs outside China have been sent back to their country of birth, where they have faced arrest as part of Beijing’s crackdown on Muslim groups.

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Foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said in Beijing that people in the Xinjiang region live in peaceful harmony, contradicting widespread reports of forced labour and sexual violence.

An English translation by the ministry said Canada should “stop politically manipulating Xinjiang-related issues for ulterior motives,” and Ottawa is “spreading disinformation and misleading the public.”

The non-binding motion said the government should come up with the outline of a resettlement program by May 12 that would begin in 2024 and meet its target within two years.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 2, 2023.

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Republicans push to remove Ilhan Omar from foreign affairs panel

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Washington, DC – In one of his first moves since becoming speaker of the United States House of Representatives, Kevin McCarthy is leading an effort to block Congresswoman Ilhan Omar from serving on the chamber’s Foreign Affairs Committee over her past criticism of Israel.

On Wednesday, the Republican majority in the House advanced a resolution to remove Omar from the panel. Democrats opposed the move, accusing McCarthy of bigotry for targeting the politician – a former refugee of Somali descent who is one of only two Muslim women serving in the US Congress.

A few Republicans initially opposed McCarthy’s effort, casting doubt over his ability to pass the resolution against Omar, given the GOP’s narrow majority.

But on Wednesday, all 218 House Republicans present voted to move forward with the measure, as Democrats remained united in support of Omar with 209 votes. A final vote is expected on Thursday as progressives rally around Omar.

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The Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) defended Omar, calling her an “esteemed and invaluable” legislator.

“You cannot remove a Member of Congress from a committee simply because you do not agree with their views. This is both ludicrous and dangerous,” CPC Chair Pramila Jayapal said in a statement on Monday.

The resolution

The resolution aimed at Omar, introduced by Ohio Republican Max Miller on Tuesday, cites numerous controversies involving the congresswoman’s criticism of Israel and US foreign policy.

“Congresswoman Omar clearly cannot be an objective decision-maker on the Foreign Affairs Committee given her biases against Israel and against the Jewish people,” Miller said in a statement.

Omar retorted by saying there was nothing “objectively true” about the resolution, adding that “if not being objective is a reason to not serve on committees, no one would be on committees”.

While the Republican resolution accuses Omar of anti-Semitism, it only invokes remarks relating to Israel, not the Jewish people.

For example, the measure calls out the congresswoman for describing Israel as an “apartheid state”, although leading human rights groups – including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch – have also accused Israel of imposing a system of apartheid on Palestinians.

Early in her congressional career in 2019, Omar faced a firestorm of criticism when she suggested that political donations from pro-Israel lobby groups – including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) – drive support for Israel in Washington.

Omar later apologised for that remark but Palestinian rights advocates say accusations of anti-Semitism against Israel’s critics aim to stifle the debate around Israeli government policies.

In the past two years, AIPAC and other pro-Israel organisations spent millions of dollars in congressional elections to defeat progressives who support Palestinian human rights, including Michigan’s Andy Levin, a left-leaning, Jewish former House member.

‘Different standards’

Although the Democratic Party is standing behind Omar now, the Republican resolution prominently features previous criticism against the congresswoman by top Democrats.

Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, an advocacy and research group, said Republicans are trying to validate their talking points against Omar by using the statements and actions of Democrats.

“They own this,” she said of Democrats who previously attacked Omar. “They made a decision in the last few years to jump on board and score political points at Ilhan’s expense … And that decision is now the basis for the resolution that is being used to throw her off the committee.”

Friedman added that Omar and her fellow Muslim-American Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib are held to “different standards” when it comes to addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Both legislators were the subject of racist attacks by former President Donald Trump who in 2019 tweeted that they, along with other progressive congresswomen of colour, “should go back to the broken and crime-infested places from which they came”.

Omar in particular became a frequent target of Trump’s anti-refugee rhetoric in the lead-up to the 2020 elections. At one rally in 2019, Trump failed to intervene as his supporters chanted “send her back” in reference to Omar.

Friedman said attacks on Omar appeal to the Republican base and play well for the party politically.

“It’s a really handy way to embarrass and corner Democrats because when Democrats vote against this tomorrow, the Republican argument is going to be: ‘I don’t get it. You said all these things [against Omar]. Why are you not holding her accountable?’ Politically, this is just fantastic for them.”

For her part, Omar has remained defiant, calling McCarthy’s effort to remove her from the committee, against initial opposition from his own caucus, “pathetic”.

Yasmine Taeb, legislative and political director at MPower Change Action Fund, a Muslim-American advocacy group, praised Omar’s commitment to a “human rights-centered foreign policy”.

“Rep. Omar speaks truth to power – a rarity in Congress. And House Republican leadership would rather waste time by attacking a progressive Black Muslim woman and pushing a far-right agenda than working on addressing the needs of the American people,” Taeb told Al Jazeera in an email.

Omar has been a vocal proponent of human rights and diplomacy in Congress. While her comments about Israel often make headlines, she criticises other countries too – including those in the Middle East – for human rights violations.

Still, critics accuse her of perpetuating anti-Semitic tropes in her criticism of Israel and even allies have described some of her comments as “sloppy”, if not malicious.

On Thursday, Win Without War, a group that promotes diplomacy in US foreign policy, decried the Republican push against Omar as an attempt to strip the House Foreign Affairs Committee of a “progressive champion and skilled legislator who challenges the political status quo”.

“Rep. Omar has helped raise the bar for progressive foreign policy in Congress. She has steadfastly advocated for cuts to the Pentagon budget, held US allies accountable for human rights abuses, and confronted the racism and Islamophobia present in US foreign policy,” Win Without War executive director Sara Haghdoosti said in a statement.

Committee wars

Congressional committees serve as specialised microcosms of Congress. The panels advance legislation, conduct oversight and hold immense power over the legislative process.

Usually, the party in power appoints the chairs and majority members of committees, while the opposition party names its own legislators to the panels.

But back in 2021, Democrats voted to remove Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene from her assigned committees for past conspiratorial, anti-Semitic and Islamophobic comments.

That same year, the Democratic House majority also formally rebuked Paul Gosar, another far-right Republican, for sharing an animated video that depicted him killing Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Now, Greene is an outspoken proponent of removing Omar from the Foreign Affairs Committee.

“No one should be on that committee with that stance towards Israel,” Greene said earlier this week. “In my opinion, I think it’s the wrong stance for any member of Congress of the United States – having that type of attitude towards our great ally, Israel.”

After Greene was stripped of her committee assignments, McCarthy had openly promised payback against the Democrats if they became the minority in the House, an event that came to pass in the 2022 midterm elections.

“You’ll regret this. And you may regret this a lot sooner than you think,” McCarthy said at that time.

The newly elected speaker has also blocked Democrats Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell from joining the intelligence committee. Schiff was the former chair of the panel.

Meanwhile, Republican Congressman George Santos, who is facing calls to step down for lying about his heritage and professional and personal history, “temporarily recused” himself from committee assignments as he is being investigated over his campaign conduct.

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Former interim Conservative leader Candice Bergen steps down as MP

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Member of Parliament and former interim Conservative leader Candice Bergen has resigned her seat in the House of Commons.

Bergen, 58, has represented the Manitoba riding of Portage—Lisgar since 2008. She served as interim leader of the Conservatives and leader of the Opposition from February to September 2022. Prior to that, she served as deputy leader of the Conservatives.

In a video posted to Twitter Wednesday, Bergen said she has submitted a letter of resignation, “ending an incredible and very fulfilling 14 years.”

Bergen thanked her constituents, family, volunteers, staff and political colleagues “on both sides of the aisle, regardless of your political stripe.”

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Bergen announced in September of last year that she would not seek reelection. Pierre Poilievre replaced her as Conservative leader that month.

Bergen did not give a specific reason for her resignation and did not mention any future plans.

“I’m choosing to leave now not because I’m tired or I’ve run out of steam. In fact, it’s the exact opposite,” she said in the video.

“I feel hopeful and re-energized. Hopeful for our strong and united Conservative Party, and our caucus, under the courageous and principled leadership of my friend, Pierre Poilievre.”

Bergen ended her goodbye message on a hopeful note.

“With God’s grace and God’s help, I believe that the best is yet to come. Thank you so much Portage—Lisgar, and thank you Canada.”

The Toronto Star was the first to report the story.

“On behalf of the Conservative Party of Canada, thank you Candice for your leadership, your devotion to our Conservative movement and your service to the people of Portage—Lisgar, and all Canadians,” Poilievre said in a tweet Wednesday.

The news means there will be a byelection in Portage—Lisgar to replace Bergen.

Manitoba Finance Minister Cameron Friesen announced last week that he’d step down as an MLA to seek the federal Conservative nomination in the riding.

The death of MP Jim Carr late last year set up a byelection in another Manitoba riding — Winnipeg South Centre. The Alberta riding of Calgary Heritage and the Ontario riding of Oxford are also up for byelections later this year.

“I thank her for her many years of service,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said of Bergen in a media scrum Wednesday.

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