Lame-duck session sees GOP leaders rushing to pass border wall, criminal justice reform

A stopgap spending bill signed by President Trump on Friday may have averted a government shutdown for at least two weeks, but lawmakers on Capitol Hill still have a host of legislation to deal before the end of the year.

A backlog of must-pass bills and eleventh-hour requests have lawmakers in both houses of Congress scrambling as the clock ticks down toward the end of the work year. Republicans, in particular, are feeling pressure to pass stalled legislation before they cede the House to the Democrats in January.

Trump on Friday did put his signature on a short-term spending bill – quickly passed by both houses of Congress -- to avoid a partial government shutdown and funds the government through December 21. This gave lawmakers some breathing room to deal with the thorny debate over border wall funding and other issues until later in the month.

Seven of the government spending bills remain unfinished. The most controversial is the Homeland Security Appropriations bill, which would include border wall funding.

Apart from the complications of needing bipartisan support in the Senate to overcome a filibuster, House Republicans right now do not have the votes to pass a bill with or without the $5 billion in wall funding sought by President Trump.

On one hand, conservatives want full wall funding. On the other, Democrats remain opposed – and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who aims to reclaim the speakership next month, faces the risk of a backlash from her caucus if she accepts a deal containing what her rank-and-file consider too much wall money.

Along with the spending bills, time is running short for congressional Republicans to ram through a farm bill, a criminal justice reform bill and confirming a number of President Trump’s nominees.

The delay for ceremonies around President George H.W. Bush’s funeral has pushed back three nominations the Senate was expected to vote on this week and, if the nominations remain a top priority for GOP senators, they could eat up much of the time they have left in session.

On criminal justice reform, Republican supporters say the legislation needs to pass this year for fear that Democrats could try to reopen negotiations next year and make it harder to pass the Senate.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said last week that he now has support for the legislation from more than half of the Republicans in the chamber. Democratic leaders said support on their side is "overwhelming." If true, their projections mean at least two-thirds of the Senate would vote for the bill.

Yet it remains unclear whether the legislation will receive a vote on the floor, with only a few weeks to go before a new Congress is sworn in.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's reluctance to hold a vote on a popular criminal justice bill has angered top Republican senators and created an unusual rift with Grassley. And on Friday, it also brought on a tweet from President Trump.

"Hopefully Mitch McConnell will ask for a VOTE on Criminal Justice Reform," Trump tweeted. "It is extremely popular and has strong bipartisan support. It will also help a lot of people, save taxpayer dollars, and keep our communities safe. Go for it Mitch!"

The bill is a project of Trump's son-in-law, White House adviser Jared Kushner, and would be the biggest sentencing overhaul in decades. It would reduce mandatory prison terms for certain drug crimes and give judges in some cases more discretion on punishments. It would allow about 2,600 federal prisoners sentenced for crack cocaine offenses before August 2010 the opportunity to petition for a reduced penalty. It also includes provisions to encourage education and workforce training in prisons.

Roughly 90 percent of prison inmates are held in state facilities and would not be affected by the legislation.

"I don't know why any Republican leader or any Republican member of the Senate wouldn't be pleased to be able to deliver something bipartisan that the president supports," Grassley said.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., intervened Friday, talking directly to Trump about attaching the criminal justice legislation to the must-pass year-end spending bill, which is already tangled in a separate fight over funds for the border wall with Mexico.

In regards to the farm bill, Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said last week that he's optimistic that lawmakers can pass a new farm bill next week after a delay caused by the break for the funeral of former President George H.W. Bush.

Peterson, the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, who's expected to become chairman next year, was heavily involved in negotiations that produced an agreement in principle last week among the top committee leaders in both the House and Senate. He said at a news conference that the final bill will get filed Monday, that he expects the House will take it up next Wednesday or Thursday, and that the Senate could then take it up the next day.

"With any luck it'll be out, it'll be passed by the end of next week. But knowing how things go around here, it may drag into the week after," Peterson said. "But I think we are going to get this thing done before the end of the year."

The farm bill governs farm subsidy and other agricultural programs, but by far the largest chunk of its more than $400 million in spending for the next five years goes to food stamps for the poor. As part of the final deal, House Republicans dropped their push for stricter work requirements for the program, which for months was the biggest sticking point due to opposition from House Democrats and many Senate Republicans.

Fox News’ Judson Berger, Chad Pergram and The Associated Press contributed to this report.