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The 6 storylines we’re watching

There are 17 days until a partial government shutdown. Congress returns to town next week.

While things in Washington are slow, we thought it would be useful to lay out the most important storylines this year. We’re going to stay intently focused on the politics of governing and legislating in the nation’s capital. Clearly, the 2024 election is the biggest political story of the year. But we’re also drilling down on the other key plotlines for the coming weeks and months.

Government funding. The most immediate challenge Congress has to deal with is a pair of government funding deadlines during the next month. As we reported in the AM edition Monday, there’s no FY2024 topline funding deal yet.

Speaker Mike Johnson has said he doesn’t want to pass another short-term stopgap funding resolution. And conservatives hate omnibus packages. But there’s very little chance that Congress can pass 12 separate spending bills by the dual Jan. 19 and Feb. 2 deadlines. So something has to give.

The border crisis. Nearly everyone we talk to in Washington understands that the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border is both a humanitarian and political disaster. There are thousands of migrants crossing the border every day. But leaders on Capitol Hill and President Joe Biden face serious difficulties in getting an agreement to stem the flow of migrants for a variety of reasons.

Johnson, who will be in Eagle Pass, Texas, on Wednesday, has effectively said that he won’t accept anything less than H.R. 2, the hardline House GOP border and immigration bill.

Of course, the Senate would never take up H.R. 2. And Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has encouraged bipartisan border discussions that include top Biden administration officials. But even if this group reaches a tentative agreement, Johnson and House Republicans will be incredibly cool to it.

The future for Ukraine aid. The whole world knows that the fate of Ukraine as a sovereign nation likely depends on Congress’ ability to strike a deal to resolve the U.S.-Mexico border crisis.

If that weren’t daunting enough for Kyiv, the pro-Ukraine Republican is becoming a rare breed on the Hill. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has made it his mission to press for robust U.S. support for Ukraine, but his view isn’t winning support from Hill Republicans nor the party at large.

Congress hasn’t approved new Ukraine aid for more than a year now. And even though the border talks are progressing, it’s unclear whether the United States will be able to follow through on Biden’s oft-stated promise to sustain Ukraine for “as long as it takes.”

Aid to Israel. One of the most controversial decisions that Johnson made since taking over as speaker was tying $14 billion in Israel aid to IRS funding cuts. That decision — coupled with Schumer’s decision to group Israel with Ukraine and Taiwan, and Republicans’ subsequent border-security demands — has led to a stalemate.

But as we noted on Monday, the Biden administration is moving to supply Israel with some weapons without Congress’ approval. The pressing question is whether Hill leaders will look to move Israel aid as a standalone with the situation in the Middle East becoming more precarious.

2024 race for Congress. The focus in coming weeks will be former President Donald Trump’s bid to win the GOP presidential nod, as well as Biden’s vulnerability. But the House and Senate are truly up for grabs this year.

The field of competitive seats in the House has shrunk, although it’s a bit too early to say Republicans or Democrats have a definitive advantage in November. Our friends at the Cook Political Report with Amy Walter say there are just 24 toss-up seats in the House. New York and North Carolina haven’t finalized their maps. Georgia, Alabama and possibly Florida and Louisiana may add minority-majority seats favoring Democrats. Democrats are well-positioned to make a serious bid to win the House.

Over in the Senate, Republicans are still favored to retake the majority. Democratic incumbents are up for reelection in red states like Montana and Ohio. Arizona is a mystery; Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) — who’s involved in the border talks — hasn’t said whether she’s running again. West Virginia is already certain to flip to the GOP with Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin’s retirement.

But Democrats could benefit from a poor slate of GOP candidates in some states. This has been Republicans’ perpetual downfall in the Trump era. Senate GOP leaders have openly lined up behind their favored candidates in key states, so we’ll see if that works.

Trump. We’re about to hear a lot more from — and about — the former president in the coming days. If that’s possible. The GOP presidential primary season officially kicks off in two weeks, and Trump is in position to run away with the nomination. Trump will also be in federal and state court throughout this period.

You don’t need us to tell you that Trump’s grasp on the GOP remains as firm as ever. That means he effectively has the power to shape the direction of Congress’ priorities this year.

It’ll be difficult for GOP leaders like Johnson to ignore Trump’s inevitable musings on the supplemental package, for instance, which conservatives will undoubtedly pan as weak on border security. If the Senate nears a deal to unlock Ukraine aid and Trump comes out against it, it may be impossible for Johnson to bring it up in the House.

— Jake Sherman, Andrew Desiderio and John Bresnahan

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Editorial photos provided by Getty Images. Political ads courtesy of AdImpact.