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Politics Chat: Congress Has A Busy Holiday Week

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

An unusual vote to kick off this new year in the U.S. Senate yesterday and close down the 116th Congress...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOSH HAWLEY: The bill on reconsideration is passed, the objections of the president of the United States to the contrary notwithstanding.

SIMON: ...An override of President Trump's veto of the defense bill in the final days of his one-term presidency.

NPR's Ron Elving joins us. Happy new year, Ron.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Happy new year to you, Scott.

SIMON: Congress has been almost busier during the holidays than it was for much of the year, hasn't it?

ELVING: (Laughter) Yeah. You know, but you could say the 116th Congress ended with a bang and a whimper, Scott - the bang being the first veto override, as you just mentioned. The bill was the National Defense Authorization Act, which supports the programs of the Department of Defense. And Trump vetoed that bill largely for issues having nothing to do with national defense. One was the renaming of military bases named for Confederate Civil War generals, and the other was stripping media companies such as Facebook and Twitter of their liability shields. That did not play well in either the House or the Senate in either party.

But there was also a whimper at the end. That was the Senate failing to even vote on those $2,000 stimulus checks. That was the amount the president demanded and that the House of Representatives approved with a bipartisan vote earlier in the week. Senate Republicans have resisted bigger stimulus checks for months. And, yes, they stuck to their guns one more time.

SIMON: What'll change next week?

ELVING: Well, you know, next week, you're going to have a somewhat new crew of people. And the Congress will be sworn in tomorrow. And just three days later, they're going to officially accept the results of the Electoral College that voted last month to elect Joe Biden president, just like people voted in November.

Now, this is usually a formality. Sometimes it's done in less than 30 minutes. But we are expecting some drama around that vote this time. There have been efforts to make it a real decision. There was one lawsuit that tried to make the vice president the person empowered to decide which states to count. Now, that suit was thrown out of court last night in Texas, just hours after the filing. But we do expect some House members will object to the process on Wednesday, with support from at least one senator. And that will force there to be at least a couple of hours of debate and a vote in each chamber.

In the end, it's just another gesture. It's not going to change anything with respect to Joe Biden's win. But it's a drama. It'll be seen on TV. It's something to tweet about. And it's expected to draw a large crowd to the streets of Washington to protest and demonstrate.

SIMON: It's all about the tweets. Listen; before we get to this dramatic Wednesday, showdown in Georgia Tuesday - two Senate runoff races.

ELVING: Yes. Both are held by Republicans, and it could flip control of the chamber if both of those seats were to go to the Democrats. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler are the incumbents. Both came up shy of 50% in the November vote. That forced a runoff under Georgia law. Both have campaigned as being close allies of the president, and he'll be holding a rally for them there on Monday night.

The Democrats are 33-year-old Jon Ossoff and the Reverend Raphael Warnock from Atlanta. They're getting a late boost from former President Obama and from Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.

SIMON: And, of course, we have to talk about the continuing, persistent and formidable crisis of the coronavirus and the kind of Capitol President Biden's going to have to work with to try and confront that crisis when he takes office in less than three weeks.

ELVING: Whatever happens in Georgia, Scott, we're looking at historically narrow margins in both the House and the Senate. It's going to require both skill and forbearance from Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. They'll have to rally the Democrats on one hand, but also reach across the partisan divide. They're going to need to summon the best efforts of the executive branch as well, including a lot of experienced and talented people who were sidelined or stifled this past year in their efforts to fight the virus. That's what it's going to take to tackle this crisis, to straighten out the vaccine distribution, restore the natural role of the national government in dealing with a truly national crisis. There's a chance here for working majorities in Congress to come together to support that effort, much as they've done in the past to support presidents in times of war.

SIMON: NPR's Ron Elving, thanks so much for being with us. Talk to you soon, obviously. Take care.

ELVING: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.