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Politics chat: Congress returns for a lame duck session


OK, the tryptophan may still be bouncing around your body, but we're about to leave the long Thanksgiving weekend behind. In Washington, that means Congress returns to work with an agenda defined by a phrase we're going to hear a lot these next few weeks, lame duck session. NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins me now to talk about what that means and what's ahead.

Morning, Mara.


FOLKENFLIK: The lame duck session is the last gasp of Democrats controlling both chambers. How much unfinished business do they intend to take up?

LIASSON: They have a lot of unfinished business. First of all, they've got to keep the government open past December 16, so they have to pass a big funding bill. They would really like to raise the debt ceiling and get that out of the way early so when it reaches its limit sometime next year, the U.S. doesn't default on its debts. That's going to be pretty hard. In the Senate, Democrats want to codify same-sex marriage. They want to pass the Electoral Count Act to make it harder to overturn a free and fair election - in other words, to make sure that no January 6's will ever happen again. And on their wish list, they would like to codify Roe v. Wade. But in the Senate, that would take 10 Republican votes. And it doesn't look like they have those.

FOLKENFLIK: Pretty full plate for a pretty short period. I must say, Republicans this fall ran on relatively scarce specifics in their campaigns. What are their actual priorities?

LIASSON: Well, their first priority is to elect a speaker. And with their tiny, little, single-digit majority, that's going to be very hard. The smaller the margin, the harder it will be for Kevin McCarthy to get the 218 votes he needs to be speaker. He can only afford to lose a couple. The other big priority for Republicans with their new House majority is not passing legislation as much as it is investigations. You're going to hear a lot about Hunter Biden's laptop. There might be impeachment proceedings against President Biden and other administration officials, as well.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I guess impeachment aside, what does the prospect of divided government mean for President Biden and his agenda?

LIASSON: Well, for all presidents who have lost complete control of Congress in a midterm, it means that Biden's legislative agenda pretty much grinds to a halt. That's why Democrats pushed so hard before the midterms to pass the president's priorities, like the infrastructure bill or the climate and drug pricing bill. Biden can still get his judges confirmed. He still has a Democratic majority in the Senate. He'll try to get bipartisan legislation through a divided Congress, but with a Republican House, that will be much more difficult. But also, politically, he's going to be trying to make the House Republicans a foil. And to the extent they conduct a lot of investigations, they seem to ignore Americans' kitchen-table concerns. He's going to try to point that out to make them look as extreme as possible and out of the mainstream. Remember, he said in his press conference right after the midterms - he was asked about Republican investigations. He said, well, I can't control what they're going to do. All I can do is try to make life better for the American people.

FOLKENFLIK: When Congress draws to a close, so will the work of the January 6 committee. What should we expect from that investigation?

LIASSON: We can expect a very big report - could be a thousand pages long. It'll focus on former President Donald Trump's role on January 6. This is the top priority for Republican Liz Cheney. She lost her race. She's not going to be in Congress after January. She's the vice chairman of the committee. And she has equated the preservation of American democracy with ensuring that Trump is never president again. Beyond that, some Republicans have said that when the House control flips in January, they want to conduct a different kind of January 6 investigation. They want to investigate how they believe Democrats failed to protect the Capitol on January 6.

FOLKENFLIK: And one last thing in the minute we have left. These midterm results defied both parties' expectations. What's your one big takeaway from Election Day 2022?

LIASSON: My one big takeaway is that America is not just deeply divided - it's evenly divided. It seems that in the midterms, the blue states, like Michigan and Pennsylvania, got bluer. Red states, like Ohio and Florida, got redder. And the battleground - meaning those states where the margins were decided by tiny, little points - true tossup states - there are really only four of them - Nevada, Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin. And that means the 2024 elections could be fought on those four states. They only have 43 electoral votes between them. So I think a deeply divided, evenly divided electorate is a recipe for instability.

FOLKENFLIK: That's NPR's Mara Liasson. Mara, thanks so much.

LIASSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.
Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.

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