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Amid House Chaos, Biden Faces Shrunken Legislative Agenda: Avoid Shutdowns, Fund Ukraine

6 minute read

As the chaos within the House Republican caucus devolves into a full-blown leadership fight, the White House finds its legislative agenda for the remainder of President Biden’s term narrowing to a barebones to-do list, according to sources familiar with the matter.

That list has just two items on it: keep the government funded and continue military assistance to Ukraine.

Both goals remain under threat amid the ongoing revolt by a minority of far-right Republicans in the House who have battled with the chamber’s leadership over those very issues. Biden is so concerned about the shaky prospects of getting another aid package for Ukraine through the House that he plans to deliver a speech in the coming days about why helping the country defend its territory from Russia is in America’s interest.

"You can't look at the fact that eight Republicans just took down a speaker and think that you can get anything through that caucus," says Jim Manley, a former senior aide to the late Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “It's ungovernable right now.”

While Presidents rarely pass major legislation in their final years in office, Biden’s narrow agenda reflects both the challenges of governing with a divided Congress, as well as the chaotic nature of the GOP-run House. On Tuesday, Rep. Kevin McCarthy became the first House Speaker in US history to be ousted from the position. His downfall was tied to his decision to work with Democrats over the weekend to avoid a government shutdown by passing legislation to keep the government funded through Nov. 17, after failing to persuade hardliners from his own party to support such legislation. 

"While we should never have been in the position in the first place, I am grateful leaders on both sides came together, including former Speaker Kevin McCarthy, to do the right thing,” Biden said on Wednesday, while urging the House to select a new speaker and fund the government “in a timely fashion.”

Earlier this year, Biden signaled the possibility of getting more done with Congress. In his State of the Union address in February, he laid out a list of policy areas where he hoped he could continue to work with Republicans, including clamping down on “junk fees” businesses charge consumers, expanding mental health care access for children in schools, restricting what data tech companies are allowed to collect on users, and providing more job training for veterans and their spouses. 

Those aspects of Biden’s agenda are now largely dead in the water, according to Democrats in the White House and on Capitol Hill. 

“Republican leadership is in such a dysfunctional state and we need them to be functional in order to take up things for the American people,” says Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat.

In the coming months, as Biden ramps up a re-election bid expected to lean heavily on the premise that he has the experience to make government work for Americans, more logjams created by the new House leadership could undercut that message.

During Biden’s first two years in office, Democrats controlled the House and the Senate, but he also went out of his way to work with Republicans. He reached across the aisle for Republican votes to pass $1.2 trillion in infrastructure investment, secure a large investment in microchip manufacturing and tech research, enact a narrow gun safety law, and expand treatments for opioid addiction and health care coverage for veterans exposed to toxic burn pits. 

But like all Presidents nearing the end of a term, Biden has left a lot of his agenda largely unaddressed. He promised his voters he’d push for laws to rein in police misconduct, expand voting rights protections, and reform the immigration system to create a pathway to citizenship for people who entered the country without authorization. 

Biden still “believes in bipartisanship, of course he does,” said White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on Tuesday, “but, you know, Congress has to fix their own problem, their own leadership issue.” 

Biden already had a strained relationship with McCarthy. The two leaders were able to navigate past the US government defaulting on its debt in June and managed to keep the government funded through mid-November, but there are years of bad blood between the two men. In the weeks following the 2020 election, McCarthy refused to acknowledge Biden’s win over Donald Trump, voted to reject results from some states, and kept close ties to the former President even after he encouraged a mob of supporters to storm the Capitol Building to stop the certification of the election.

The next Republican speaker could have an even frostier relationship with Biden. Two of the leading contenders—Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio and Steve Scalise of Louisiana—would both bring a rightward shift to the Republican leadership. Jordan is currently leading the effort in the House to impeach Biden over unsubstantiated allegations that Biden was involved in his son Hunter Biden’s overseas business deals. He has also vocally opposed additional funding for Ukraine.

The Biden administration believes the security of the European continent is at stake if Russia isn’t stopped from overrunning Ukraine. “If there’s one thing that all Americans, no matter who you vote for, can get behind it’s the idea of independence,” John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said on Tuesday. “That’s what Ukraine is fighting for: their right to be an independent state.  It’s what we fought for in 1776.” Kirby likened the US helping Ukraine to American revolutionary forces winning the country’s independence with help from the French military and naval forces.

Some Republicans in Congress believe that despite concerns from a vocal minority, funding for Ukraine’s defense isn’t in jeopardy. Rep. Mike McCaul, a Texas Republican, is the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee and a vocal advocate for Ukraine aid. He says that Republicans won’t know next steps on Ukraine funding until the House elects a new speaker, but he remains optimistic that Congress will be able to get it done. 

Similarly, Rep. Mike Lawler, a New York Republican who sits on the Foreign Affairs Committee, says he isn’t worried about the next Speaker’s position on Ukraine because “the vast majority of the House shows that it is supportive of it.”

Others are less confident, as it remains unclear whether House Republicans will be able to get past their leadership chaos to get anything done. 

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Write to Nik Popli at nik.popli@time.com