As the first session of the 118th U.S. Congress comes to a close, the legislative year ended with few major accomplishments. The divided Congress—Republican control of the U.S. House and Democratic control of the U.S. Senate—meant that only bipartisan legislation could make it through both chambers and to President Joe Biden’s desk for enactment. The only major piece of legislation enacted in 2023 ended up being the Fiscal Responsibility Act, better known as the debt-limit deal. And Congress continued to struggle with completing its Fiscal Year 2024 budget bills by September 30, the end of the fiscal year.
Early Indicators of Trouble
Perhaps the drama-filled first days of the session in the House should have been an indication of an unpredictable and contentious year. It took three days and 15 votes for U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Ca.) to become Speaker of the House. The slim margins in the House—Republicans with a four-seat majority—created an atmosphere in which a small block of members could dictate legislative proceedings. McCarthy spent most of the year at odds with the conservative faction of the Republican Party. Despite early predictions that McCarthy’s grip on the speaker’s gavel would be short-lived, he managed to survive, although that can change on any given day. One member can ask for a vote on a “motion to vacate” to have him removed. Many members of the conservative Freedom Caucus have threatened to use the motion to vacate.
Over the years, it has become more commonplace for Congress to legislate by fiscal cliff. This year was no different. The U.S. government reached its debt limit this spring, which required Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen to use extraordinary measures to pay the nation’s bills until Congress could raise the limit. It took many weeks and a series of high-level negotiations between McCarthy and Biden and their teams to reach the debt-limit compromise.
The deal included across-the-board federal spending cuts and suspending the debt limit until the first quarter of 2025, which means the next debt limit fight will be reserved for the 119th Congress after the 2024 elections. Many in the Freedom Caucus refused to support the compromise deal as they believed the budget cuts did not go far enough.
However, the legislation passed the House by a vote of 314–117, which included the support of 165 Democrats. The legislation cleared the Senate by a bipartisan 63–36 vote and was signed into law. Despite the passage of the Fiscal Responsibility Act, the U.S. credit rating was downgraded in August, creating additional uncertainty in the markets.
House Messaging Bills
Despite the bicameral passage of significant legislative packages such as there were in the previous Congress—Inflation Reduction Act, Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and the Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors and Science Act—the House kept itself busy passing numerous pieces of legislation mainly considered messaging documents for the 2024 elections. Much of the partisan legislation had no hope of making it through the Senate, let alone being signed into law. Even the House Appropriations Committee passed partisan bills with numerous poison-pill social provisions, as opposed to the almost unanimously bipartisan Senate-passed bills. That made it nearly impossible to reconcile the differences in the bills.
Challenges in the Senate
The Senate also had its share of challenges in 2023. Even though the Democrats held a majority—48 Democrats and three independents who vote with the Democrats to 49 Republicans—in the 118th Congress, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) had a difficult time confirming many Biden administration judicial nominees. Schumer needed 51 votes to clear a nomination on the Senate floor, but several Democratic senators, including Sens. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Ca.), were out for extended periods due to health issues, leaving Schumer one vote short. Additionally, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had health challenges that caused him to be away from Washington, D.C., as well.
Additionally, Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) single-handedly held up hundreds of military promotions over the U.S. Department of Defense’s abortion policy, creating ire from the military establishment, as well as many in his own party.
End of Year
If Congress does not pass all 12 appropriations bills by January 1, 2024, a 1% across-the-board cut will be enacted as stipulated in the debt-limit compromise. Many conservatives view additional cuts as positive and are dug in on their desires to cut spending and overhaul large government programs.