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Senate is back from summer recess. Here's what's on the agenda

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Congress is coming back to Washington this week after lawmakers were home for a month-long summer recess. But there's a lot on their plate. First up is a fight over government funding that could trigger a shutdown. Mitch McConnell, the top Senate Republican, summed it up this way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MITCH MCCONNELL: Honestly, it's a pretty big mess.

RASCOE: McConnell faces a big test. He froze again at a public event, raising questions about his fitness to serve as leader. And House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is facing calls from his right flank to move to impeach President Biden. NPR congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh joins us now.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Hey, Ayesha.

RASCOE: Hey. So is Congress going to be able to avoid a shutdown?

WALSH: You know, they don't have a lot of time. And as the tradition is in Washington, Congress is leaving important things pretty much to the last minute. The problem is this House and Senate aren't working off the same math, and they haven't agreed to even one of the dozen annual spending bills they need to pass.

The debt ceiling deal that House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and President Biden negotiated back in May set overall spending levels for the fiscal year. But a group of House conservatives who didn't like that deal forced McCarthy to craft bills at a lower spending level. The Senate is working on the outline from the debt ceiling deal, so the two chambers are really on, basically, a collision course. McCarthy, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and the White House do agree that some type of short-term spending bill is needed to avoid a shutdown. They're talking about passing what's called a continuing resolution, or CR, to keep federal agencies funded through sometime in early December.

RASCOE: So beyond keeping the lights on at federal agencies, what else are they working on?

WALSH: The two big things are disaster aid and money for Ukraine. The Biden administration sent up an emergency funding request earlier this summer, initially asked for $12 billion for FEMA to respond to natural disasters. They need $4 billion more. They've asked for that since the fires in Maui and Hurricane Idalia swept through the southeastern coastal states. The White House also wants $20 billion for Ukraine. But there's a bloc of House conservatives who oppose any more money. So it'll be tough for the leaders to get that through.

RASCOE: So the leaders on Capitol Hill, specifically the top Republicans, are facing different challenges. Let's talk about McConnell first. Like, how's he doing following that episode in Kentucky?

WALSH: The Capitol physician, Brian Monahan, cleared McConnell to work and said after consulting with him and his neurology team, the 81-year-old senator could continue his schedule as planned. McConnell had a fall back in March and suffered a concussion, and Dr. Monahan said that lightheadedness is a symptom after recovering from a concussion. But these two public episodes of freezing have really been jarring. And Senate Republican colleagues so far are supporting McConnell. But there are continuing questions about how serious his health issues are. He hasn't answered the question about whether he's going to run for reelection in 2026. But Senate Republicans want to regain control of the chamber in 2024. And there's now new questions about whether McConnell can remain leader of his party in the Senate.

RASCOE: And what about House Speaker Kevin McCarthy? He has a razor-thin majority, and conservatives want to impeach President Biden. So is that going to move ahead?

WALSH: It does seem likely that impeachment will move in the House. McCarthy has increasingly talked more about launching an impeachment inquiry. But House Republicans haven't uncovered any evidence of any wrongdoing by President Biden. Some are alleging corruption around his son Hunter Biden's business dealings when Biden was vice president. But these House committee chairmen that are pushing impeachment haven't produced any evidence that the president received any financial benefit.

You know, Republicans in the House are split. There are moderates who don't think it's a good idea to move ahead without some justification or evidence. But other allies of former President Trump, especially after the recent indictments over the summer, are really eager when the Congress comes back this fall to impeach President Biden. It's unclear whether McCarthy will call a vote to launch something formally because he really doesn't have the votes right now to pass that. But the committees could go ahead and continue to do the work to potentially draft these articles of impeachment. You know, I think based on McCarthy's recent comments that it's the natural next step to do an inquiry, it's really a question of when, not if, they move forward.

RASCOE: That's NPR's Deirdre Walsh. Thank you so much.

WALSH: Thank you, Ayesha.

(SOUNDBITE OF YELLOWJACKET'S "GROCERY CHOPPIN'") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.
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