By Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – There was plenty of sound and fury this year in the U.S. Congress, but scant legislating amid Republican infighting in the House of Representatives, leaving little time for pressing matters such as funding the government and continuing to aid Ukraine in its war against Russia.
Congress will return for its 2024 legislative session on Jan. 8. Lawmakers will be confronted with Jan. 19 and Feb. 2 deadlines for settling government spending through September. They also hope to pass emergency aid for Ukraine and Israel, possibly with unrelated U.S. border security provisions attached.
Failure to approve the one-dozen fiscal 2024 spending bills would plunge Washington agencies into shutdown mode.
With the November presidential and congressional elections now looming, Congress could see yet another year of struggles, especially if Republican chaos in the deeply-divided House continues.
Three history-making developments defined Congress in 2023:
A record 15 ballots were required before Republicans managed to elect Representative Kevin McCarthy as speaker of the House; within nine months a group of right-wing conservatives made him the first speaker in history to be removed from office and it took three weeks to anoint a new one; and two months later, Republican Representative George Santos became the first member to be expelled from the House who had not been convicted of a crime or fought for the Confederacy during the U.S. Civil War.
The result was that for more than the equivalent of a full month the House was unable to work on any legislation as the chamber fought to tamp down Republican anarchy.
As revolts by right-wing Republicans roiled the House, the Senate was comparatively tame, working across party lines to write one dozen 2024 spending bills — none of which have yet made it into law in any form — and trying to confirm as many of Democratic President Joe Biden’s judicial nominees as possible as he enters the final year of his first term in office.
Amid the House ruckus, lawmakers narrowly avoided a couple of disasters.
They sidestepped triggering an historic default on U.S. debt in June with a deal that made minor budget savings. It promptly was thrown into controversy as right-wing House Republicans refused to adhere to the top-line spending authorized by the deal. And, despite two close brushes in October and November, there were no government shutdowns, as stop-gap federal funding bills kept U.S. agencies running on fumes.
In one important legislative victory, a defense policy bill was enacted into law, authorizing a record $886 billion in annual military spending.
The relatively unproductive year was in contrast to 2022, when the Democratic-controlled Congress passed a major infrastructure investment law, record investments to fight climate change and lower prescription drug prices and the first major new gun controls in decades.
Last year may have been light on lawmaking, but it had no shortage of colorful personalities.
Congressional Democrats privately worried about Biden’s age (81) as he gears up for re-election; Senate Republicans fretted their leader, Mitch McConnell (81), may not be up to the job, especially after two episodes in which he froze in front of cameras, stirring worries about his health.
Democrat Joe Manchin announced he will not run for re-election in his solidly-Republican home state of West Virginia. But he refused to quiet speculation he might run as an independent presidential candidate.
His exit put a dent in Democrats’ drive to keep their Senate majority in November’s elections.
The House authorized an impeachment probe of Biden, even though Republican investigators have not unveiled firm evidence of presidential wrongdoing; Republican Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene used a congressional hearing to show graphic images of what she said was Biden’s son, Hunter.
Meanwhile, three House Democrats were censured: Adam Schiff for investigating Trump’s conduct as president; Jamaal Bowman for pulling a fire alarm in a House office building when there was no fire; and Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian-American, for comments she made regarding Israel’s war with Hamas.
When elected speaker, McCarthy triumphantly said: “It’s time for us to be a check and provide some balance to the president’s policies.” Instead, McCarthy is checking out of Congress on Dec. 31.
(Reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Don Durfee and Daniel Wallis)