We’ll be back on Jan. 2. In the meantime, sign up for Premium and Premium Policy to make sure you don’t miss any breaking news. And sign up for Punchbowl News texts. Merry Christmas, happy holidays and happy New Year.
Leader Look: We wanted to close out the year with a close look at the two Senate leaders and where their heads are on what will be an eventful first few months of 2024. They both had quite the year for different reasons.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer: The New York Democrat was able to sidestep a number of tricky issues throughout 2023, although divided government and GOP infighting prevented a repeat of the legislative wins of the last Congress.
From avoiding a debt default and two potential government shutdowns to navigating a months-long struggle over military promotions and the Pentagon’s abortion policy, Schumer did what he had to with a very thin majority.
Yet Schumer’s toughest test will come in 2024, when he will face the daunting task of defending an array of vulnerable Senate Democrats in a presidential election year with an unpopular 81-year-old incumbent at the top of the ticket. His Democratic colleagues can run perfect races and still lose. Schumer — a former DSCC chair — knows this.
Schumer has been emphasizing what he sees as the steady hand of the Democratic-controlled Senate in contrast with the chaos of the GOP-run House. And he’s continuing to focus on the implementation of the Senate’s big bipartisan achievements from the first two years of Joe Biden’s presidency.
As part of that effort, Schumer has been meeting on a bi-weekly basis with the six most endangered Democratic incumbents. Democrats believe that highlighting infrastructure projects in those states will give them a major boost.
Of course, the Republican-controlled House will continue to be a major hurdle for Schumer. When it comes to immigration and border security — the price Democrats must pay for Ukraine aid — there’s a real risk of a 2013 rerun, with the Senate searching for a bipartisan deal while the House does nothing. The migrant crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border is a major political vulnerability for Biden, Schumer and the party, so this’ll be one of the top storylines heading into the next session.
Schumer and Senate Democrats could also be forced to respond to a possible Biden impeachment. We think that’s more likely than not now that House Republicans have opened a formal inquiry. A Biden impeachment trial — with its pre-ordained outcome — would take weeks of floor time.
And then there’s government funding. Congress finds itself in a real jam here, with the first of two funding deadlines looming just 10 days after lawmakers return in January.
While Schumer has been criticized for not moving fast enough on the issue, Senate appropriators believe they have a blueprint in their 12 committee-approved bills, regardless of whether they pass on the floor. Being senators — and having crafted these measures to conform to the bipartisan Fiscal Responsibility Act — they think the House should be forced to accept their position.
The House already moved in the Senate’s direction on shutdown-averting government funding bills and other must-pass items like NDAA. Senate Democrats think appropriations will be no different.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell: The longest-serving party leader in Senate history had one of his most difficult years and could face an even more turbulent 2024.
At the start of this session, McConnell was fresh off the most significant challenge to his leadership role in his 16 years atop the GOP Conference. He fended it off easily, but lingering issues from that leadership fight popped up throughout the year, with hardline conservatives continuing to question McConnell’s strategy on a number of fronts.
McConnell’s health challenges also burst into public view even before his two “freezing” episodes were caught on camera. Earlier in the year, McConnell missed six weeks after suffering a concussion and broken ribs stemming from a fall. Taken together, these incidents had many wondering if McConnell’s days as GOP leader were numbered. It’ll be an even more potent question if Republicans take back the Senate majority next year, which they’re currently favored to do.
Yet even apart from his health, GOP senators say McConnell’s influence within his conference has waned. His steadfast support for Ukraine has particularly rankled conservatives, whose alignment with Donald Trump has fueled the burgeoning dissatisfaction with McConnell’s leadership. Trump, of course, detests McConnell for acknowledging that the former president lost in 2020.
McConnell has worked hard to ensure that Trump’s worldview doesn’t win out within the party, often breaking with the former president without uttering his name. But with Trump on track to secure the GOP nomination, it’ll become much harder for McConnell to avoid questions about the former president and his latest incendiary or racist comment.
January will be critical for McConnell, Washington’s most vocal Ukraine supporter. McConnell has embraced demands from his conference that any Ukraine aid bill be paired with GOP-approved border security and immigration policy changes. As we’ve noted repeatedly, this was a risky strategy given the thorniness of the immigration issue, but it was a necessary one given where the Republican Party is today. McConnell has held the line on this, to the pleasant surprise of Senate conservatives.
McConnell won’t be able to sign off on any agreement that Speaker Mike Johnson refuses to bring up in the House. Conservatives there have already trashed the idea of a Senate-brokered compromise, and half of the House GOP Conference opposes more Ukraine aid anyway.
So the internal GOP calculus — with Trump looming on the horizon — becomes more difficult to predict by the day.
— Andrew Desiderio, Jake Sherman and John Bresnahan