WASHINGTON — The divided Congress returns this week after a monthlong summer recess, facing important deadlines and a long to-do list of tasks to keep the federal government functioning.
The first order of business is to fund the government before a Sept. 30 deadline or face a shutdown. The Democratic-led Senate returns Tuesday, and the two chambers are far from agreement, as Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s right-wing members rebel against a short-term bill to prevent a shutdown and buy more time for negotiations.
To further complicate matters, it could collide with a House Republican impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden, as a restive conservative wing of the narrow House GOP majority attempts to flex its muscle on investigations and shape the must-pass bills.
Last week on Fox News, McCarthy, R-Calif., called an impeachment inquiry a “natural step forward” and warned that a shutdown could hinder ongoing GOP investigations of Biden, his administration and his son Hunter's business dealings.
“If we shut down, all of government shuts down — investigation and everything else. It hurts the American public,” he said.
Even though House Republicans have not produced evidence of wrongdoing by Biden, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., said she won't support any funding measure until the House votes to formally begin an impeachment inquiry into the president.
"I've already decided: I will not vote to fund the government unless we have passed an impeachment inquiry on Joe Biden," Greene told constituents in a video she posted online.
The remarks drew swift pushback from the White House, which is ramping up its war room to fend off potential impeachment.
"If Speaker McCarthy proceeds to an impeachment simply to throw red meat to the right wing, as a condition for or distraction from far-right GOP efforts to shut down the government, it will prove once and for all this is a baseless, politically-motivated exercise not rooted in evidence and not about getting to the truth," White House spokesman Ian Sams said in a statement.
McCarthy also faces far-right demands to include conservative immigration provisions and slash federal funding for the three prosecutors who have secured criminal indictments of former President Donald Trump, the front-runner in the polls in the 2024 GOP primary.
The cutoff date to avert a shutdown coincides with deadlines to pass a new farm bill and reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration. Congress will also have to grapple with the future of Ukraine aid and disaster relief in the wake of Maui fires and Hurricane Idalia.
Senate returns, making government funding a priority
When the Senate gavels in on Tuesday, it will focus "on funding the government and preventing House Republican extremists from forcing a government shutdown," Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told colleagues in a letter last week.
Schumer praised Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Vice Chair Susan Collins, R-Maine, for passing all 12 appropriations bills with broad support from both parties.
"Because of what we accomplished last year, our economy is gaining momentum; we cannot afford to jeopardize that progress because MAGA Republicans want to play political games," Schumer wrote. "The only way to avoid a shutdown is through bipartisanship, so I have urged House Republican leadership to follow the Senate’s lead and pass bipartisan appropriations bills."
But the House, which is back in session next week, is pursuing funding legislation without Democratic support that cuts spending below a recent budget accord, alongside a host of conservative policy provisions and items rolling back portions of Biden's agenda.
“One of our goals is to change Washington,” McCarthy said in the Fox News interview. “I don’t believe we’ll have enough time to pass all the appropriation bills by Sept. 30. So I would actually like to have a short-term CR only to make our argument stronger.”
‘A pretty big mess’
But the far-right House Freedom Caucus has made it clear it won't support a short-term funding bill unless it includes conservative policy provisions that have no realistic chance of passing the Senate. McCarthy could go around them and pass it with Democratic votes, but the right-wing faction has dangled the threat of overthrowing him as speaker if he bucks them.
“It’s not gonna be pretty,” Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C., a member of the Freedom Caucus, said of the upcoming September debates.
Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., warned last week at an event in Kentucky that the House GOP plan for government funding is dead on arrival in the upper chamber.
"Honestly, it's a pretty big mess," McConnell said Wednesday. "The speaker and the president reached an agreement, which I supported, in connection with raising the debt ceiling to set spending levels for next year. The House then turned around and passed spending levels that were below that level. Without saying an opinion about that, that's not going to be replicated in the Senate."
The remarks came moments before McConnell appeared to freeze at a press event for the second time in five weeks, reigniting questions and Republican anxieties about the 81-year-old Senate leader's health.
McCarthy: Impeachment inquiry needs a vote
On Friday, McCarthy told the website Breitbart that he won't begin an impeachment inquiry unilaterally. "If we move forward with an impeachment inquiry, it would occur through a vote on the floor of the People’s House and not through a declaration by one person," he said, according to the conservative outlet.
A vote would protect McCarthy from process criticisms after he vocally objected in 2019 to the fact that Democrats launched the first impeachment inquiry into Trump without holding a vote. Ultimately, Democrats held a successful vote to authorize it, but only weeks after the probe started.
Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana, the House GOP vice chair, recently endorsed an impeachment inquiry, citing unsubstantiated claims that Biden engaged in foreign bribery schemes with his son Hunter.
Constituents “asked me about impeachment inquiry,” Johnson said Thursday on his podcast. “Do I support it? I definitely do because I’m a constitutional law attorney. I’m a member of the House Judiciary Committee. I’m the chairman of the Constitution subcommittee. I have to be guided by the Constitution.”
McCarthy would need the support of nearly every Republican in the slim majority to open an inquiry, with Democrats all but guaranteed to oppose it. Some Republican lawmakers, including those in competitive districts, say they haven’t seen enough evidence to support an impeachment inquiry. Their votes will be critical.