Biden, Congress stare down daunting month as Russia-Ukraine conflict, Supreme Court pick, China bill loom

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The potential Russian invasion of Ukraine, a Supreme Court opening, a burgeoning political battle over a China competition bill, and more face members of Congress and President Biden in what may be the most critical month of his presidency yet. 

Looming over everything is the Ukraine issue, which already appears to be straining relations between Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Last week as Zelensky sought to project stability in the face of the Russian military buildup on his border, the White House directly refuted him and said it’s very likely Russia launches a full-scale attack.

“We understand the difficult position President Zelensky is in and the pressure he’s under,” a White House official told Fox News Saturday. “But at the same time he’s downplaying the risk of invasion, he’s asking for hundreds of millions of dollars in weapons to defend against one. We think it’s important to be open and candid about that threat.”

Russia also moved medical units to the Ukrainian border, a defense official confirmed to Fox News – yet more evidence an invasion could be imminent. 

Members of Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces, volunteer military units of the Armed Forces, train in a city park in Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022. Dozens of civilians have been joining Ukraine’s army reserves in recent weeks amid fears about Russian invasion. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
(AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

That means Congress may have little time to ready a sanctions package against Russia as retaliation for any invasion. It also means Biden is likely to be on the defensive over his handling of Russia, whether the invasion could have been prevented and whether his handling of the Afghanistan withdrawal emboldened Russian President Vladimir Putin. Republicans are already attacking him for it. 

“If Vladimir Putin has seen what Joe Biden has done over the last year and then he saw his fecklessness in Afghanistan, and I’m afraid that he thinks now is the time to go for the jugular in Ukraine,” Sen. Tom Cotton. R-Ark., said on “Fox News Sunday.” 

Meanwhile, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo is pushing Congress to counter the United States’ other major geopolitical foe and send a China competition bill to Biden’s desk. The Senate passed a bipartisan competition bill last year, but it stalled over differences with the House’s version.  

President Joe Biden speaks about the government’s COVID-19 response, in the South Court Auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House Campus in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022. He and Russian President Volodymyr Zelensky are at odds over the likelihood of a Russian invasion of Ukraine. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
( (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik))

Raimondo last week lauded a new bill introduced by House Democrats as able to “create good jobs, rebuild American manufacturing, and strengthen our supply chains here at home for years ahead.”

But House Republicans are already attacking it, and it’s not clear the bill could make it through the Senate. House Foreign Affairs Committee Ranking Member Michael McCaul, R-Texas, said the House Democrats’ bill “torpedo[es] the chance of a bipartisan, bicameral bill to confront the generational threat posed by the Chinese Communist Party.”

Also coming up is a Senate confirmation process for a nominee to replace the retiring Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. Biden said he will nominate a Black woman to fill Breyer’s seat by the end of February. 

Supreme Court Associate Justice Stephen Breyer announces his retirement in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022. Finding a replacement for the highly-respected justice is just one more item of President Biden’s plate. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” Sunday that he “cannot say anything bad” about J. Michelle Childs, one of the rumored front-runners for the nomination. And with favorable Senate conditions for Biden’s eventual nominee, whether or not it is Childs, the confirmation process could be Biden’s best chance to score a big political win. 

But that process will eat up time as Congress tries to deal with a bevy of other issues. They include funding the government, potential Electoral Count Act (ECA) reforms, and continued calls by progressives for Democrats to pass the Build Back Better social spending bill amid increasing frustration from the party base with their leaders. 

ECA reform would target perceived loopholes in the law former President Donald Trump tried to take advantage of to remain in office as he falsely claimed the 2020 presidential election was stolen. 

It is being spearheaded by moderates like Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Susan Collins, R-Maine. Many Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., say they are for it. 

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., is seated before a Senate Rules and Administration Committee oversight hearing on the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022, in Washington. Schumer earlier this month said passing Electoral Count Act reform without broader election bills would be insufficient. But that appears to be the only way for Congress to address the events that led up to the Jan. 6 attack by a mob of former President Donald Trump’s supporters. 
(Elizabeth Frantz/Pool via AP)

That bill will have to overcome some political hurdles, however, including progressives who are upset Republicans filibustered Democrats’ sprawling election reform bills and say ECA reform isn’t enough. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called only reforming the ECA “unacceptably insufficient” earlier this month. 

Schumer appears to be walking back that stance, Politico reported. It remains to be seen whether progressives will do the same. Trump also put out a statement Sunday attacking the ECA reform efforts that may motivate some Republicans aligned with him to oppose any such bill.

On top of all that, the government is set to run out of funding on Feb. 18 after Congress passed a stopgap spending bill last year. Thile the risk of a shutdown is not very high, the effort to come to a long-term budget deal will steal yet more of lawmakers’ attention. If a deal is not reached, another short-term government funding bill may be necessary. 

And even as BBB talks remain stalled with few if any signs of life, the Congressional Progressive Caucus is demanding Senate Democrats pass it by March 1, the date of Biden’s State of the Union address. 

They call that goal “achievable and necessary.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called it “an aspiration” but said “we have other things we have to do.” 

Fox News’ Pat Ward, Peter Aitken, Lucas Tomlinson and Chad Pergram contributed to this report. 

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