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A Supreme Court confirmation battle adds to busy stretch for Congress

Lawmakers return this week with a long to-do list, including Ukraine briefings, a government funding deadline and hopes to revive the Build Back Better Act.
Image: The U.S. Capitol at dawn on Jan. 6, 2022.
The U.S. Capitol at dawn on Jan. 6, 2022.J. Scott Applewhite / AP

WASHINGTON — As Congress returns from recess this week, senators are gearing up for a confirmation battle to fill Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer’s seat.

The high-stakes process will feature candidates jockeying for the rare vacancy and lawmakers using the process to score political points, adding to what’s already set to be a busy stretch on Capitol Hill.

The Democratic-controlled Senate is bracing for a clash when President Joe Biden announces his pick to succeed Breyer, which he said he intends to do by the end of February.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who chairs the Judiciary Committee and would be responsible for steering Biden's pick through the nomination process, said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that party leaders will ensure that the proceedings are "fair," "deliberate" and "timely."

"This is a lifetime appointment to the highest court in the land. We should take it seriously," he said, indicating that the timeline would be quicker if Biden nominates a candidate who has come before the Senate in recent years.

The vacancy is another unity exercise for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., whose caucus fractured this month over voting rights legislation and filibuster rules. Democrats hold a wafer-thin majority in the chamber — 50-50, with a Democratic vice president to break ties — so they’ll need a candidate who is guaranteed to draw support from every member.

Two notable Democratic defectors on Biden's legislative ambitions — Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — haven't voted against any of his judicial nominees so far. In fact, not a single Democratic-voting senator has voted against any of Biden's 42 Senate-confirmed judges, many of whom have even drawn Republican support, according to a review by NBC News.

As the White House considers Supreme Court candidates, the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing Tuesday on pending district court nominees. It also plans to advance "a number of circuit court nominees in the near future," a committee aide said.

Lawmakers are also keeping a close eye on rising tensions along the Russia-Ukraine border. A bipartisan congressional delegation recently traveled to Ukraine to express U.S. solidarity with the country amid fears of a Russian incursion.

As the administration engages in diplomatic efforts in the region, the House and Senate are expected to hold member briefings on the escalating situation, aides said.

Also on the legislative to-do list is a Feb. 18 government funding deadline. Congress still needs to make key decisions to prevent a federal shutdown, and it's unclear whether lawmakers will be able to negotiate a full-year appropriations bill or be forced to fall back on another stopgap measure.

"I think we might have another” continuing resolution, said Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., the ranking member of the Appropriations Committee.

Shelby suggested that some of his colleagues, who expect that the party will gain seats in the midterm elections, would prefer to pass a stopgap measure until they win more clout to shape government funding legislation.

Meanwhile, senators are expected to continue bipartisan negotiations on modest legislation to prevent election subversion, including changes to the 1887 Electoral Count Act

Democrats also hope for progress on several of Biden's other legislative ambitions this week. The House is expected to take up a bill to increase competitiveness with China and support the U.S. chip industry, a version of which the Senate passed last year.

Biden touted the America Competes Act, which authorizes tens of billions of dollars to support U.S. supply chains and manufacturing of critical goods and technology, in a visit to Pittsburgh on Friday.

The House and the Senate, he said, “are working out a bill that's going to provide an extra $90 billion for research and development, manufacturing, all the elements in the supply chain needed to produce the end products."

In the same speech, Biden expressed hope of reviving his signature Build Back Better Act — a sprawling bill that includes $1.7 trillion in spending on clean energy and boosting the economic safety net. The bill, which passed the House, stalled in the Senate after Manchin said he wouldn't vote for it last month.

"We can't slow down, folks. We need to ease the burden of working families, make everything more affordable, accessible," Biden said Friday. "That's what my Build Back Better plan is all about."

Manchin has said he's ready to restart negotiations. In a local radio interview last week, he even floated a compromise on child tax credit payments, a policy within the package that he had long resisted.

“More needed on a targeted basis I call means testing," he said. "So I’m all open to looking at anything and everything that helps people, but targeting it better. That’s it."