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The House has no speaker, but plenty to do. Here are 5 of the most pressing issues

The U.S. Capitol, pictured on Thursday. Congress has a lot to do, but House business is stalled without a leader.
Saul Loeb
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AFP via Getty Images
The U.S. Capitol, pictured on Thursday. Congress has a lot to do, but House business is stalled without a leader.

A revolt by a small group of hard-line Republicans has left the House without an elected speaker and, as a result, unable to do legislative business.

It spent much of last week on recess, and isn't expected to reconvene to vote on a new speaker until midweek at the earliest. It's not clear how long that process will take.

And if Republicans elect a far-right speaker, their odds of cooperating with House Democrats — let alone the Democratic-controlled Senate — are likely to be slim.

The delay doesn't just mean the House can't act on the items on its lengthy to-do list — it also can't add new ones.

For example: The Biden administration said over the weekend that it's examining whether the chaos in the House could have an impact on any additional funding needed to help Israel, after a surprise attack by Hamas.

It's all set against the backdrop of a clock ticking down to a potential government shutdown. As it stands, Congress has 39 days to pass the 12 appropriations bills needed to keep the federal government open long-term. If it does not, the ensuing disruptions would affect millions of Americans.

The speakership saga is yet another example of how decisions at the highest levels of government have direct effects on peoples' lives, historian Heather Cox Richardson told Morning Edition.

"Sometimes you get frustrated listening to people scream at each other, but what they're screaming about is your life — and what things you are allowed to do in your life," she said. "And it's a really important thing to pay attention to."

Here are some of the other things that hang in the balance, from Ukraine aid and defense spending to global health efforts and pandemic relief.

Aid for Ukraine

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (C) walks with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (R) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (L) during a trip to Washington last month.
Pedro Ugarte / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (center) walks with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., during a trip to Washington last month.

Funding for Ukraine's war is on the line — and incredibly divisive.

President Biden asked Congress to authorize $24 billion for fresh military, humanitarian and economic aid for Ukraine through the end of the calendar year.

That would help its embattled military continue its slow-moving offensive against Russian troops in the east and south, and bolster the air defenses needed to limit the rolling blackouts they faced last winter.

The Pentagon has warned U.S. lawmakers that military aid for Ukraine is rapidly running out, NPR has reported. It's particularly concerned about the need to replenish air defense systems and provide additional artillery, including 155 mm shells.

Most Democrats — and Senate Republicans — agree on the practical and strategic importance of helping Ukraine defend itself from Russia. But more than $112 billion and a year-and-a-half into the war, many Republicans believe such support should come to an end.

House Republicans are split on the issue.

Last week, McCarthy, before he was ousted after hard-line Republicans turned on him for cooperating with Democrats, moved ahead with a short-term government spending bill that did not include aid for Ukraine.

Democrats are seeking to authorize aid through a standalone bill, and had hoped McCarthy would be willing to move it forward. Now that he's out, the path ahead is unclear.

The two candidates who have announced their speakership bids so far have differing views on Ukraine aid: House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, is against it while House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La., has voted for it.

Biden says he plans to deliver a major address soon to try to persuade the American public why support for Ukraine is in the national interest.

A global anti-HIV effort

Girls hold U.S. and Kenyan flags while waiting for the arrival of a U.S. ambassador at a site supported by PEPFAR in Nairobi, Kenya in March 2018.
Ben Curtis / AP
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AP
Girls hold U.S. and Kenyan flags while waiting for the arrival of a U.S. ambassador at a site supported by PEPFAR in Nairobi, Kenya in March 2018.

PEPFAR, the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, is considered one of the most successful aid programs in U.S. history.

It's funded antiretroviral treatment for more than 20 million people across more than 50 countries since it was launched by President George W. Bush in 2003.

And it's enjoyed consistently strong bipartisan support, having been reauthorized several times over three presidential administrations.

Congress missed its Sept. 30 deadline to reauthorize it for another five-year term — leaving the program intact but letting some of the requirements on its funding lapse.

"In the short term, PEPFAR will be able to continue providing the lifesaving prevention, care, and treatment services in partnership with PEPFAR-supportive countries," State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said this week, adding that Congress' failure to reauthorize it sends a message to the world that "we are backing down from our leadership in ending HIV/AIDS as a public health threat."

The popular program has recently taken a partisan turn, after Republican lawmakers accused it of promoting abortions abroad.

Those complaints center on the Biden administration's rescinding of the "Mexico City Policy," which prohibited U.S. foreign aid from going to organizations that use their own money to provide abortions, referrals and related information. (Democratic presidential administrations typically rescind the rule while Republican ones enforce it.)

U.S. law has long prohibited foreign aid money from being used for abortions. And supporters of PEPFAR say there are only so many groups it can partner with on the ground — and that ending those partnerships would make it less effective.

Jen Kates of the nonprofit organization KFF told NPR that while the program's broad popularity makes it unlikely to see funding cuts, the fact that it's been caught up in abortion politics is troubling.

"It sends a potentially sad message to America and to the world that we can't move forward with things that really work and that really are about saving lives," she said.

Annual defense spending

The House and Senate have each passed their own versions of the National Defense Authorization Act, and will need to reconcile them before the end of the year.
Paul J. Richards / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
The House and Senate have each passed their own versions of the National Defense Authorization Act, and will need to reconcile them before the end of the year.

The National Defense Authorization Act is an annual piece of legislation that lawmakers call a "must-pass" bill. It addresses the policies and administrative organization of the Department of Defense, and provides guidance on how military funding can be spent.

"The NDAA can be thought of as the Department of Defense's (DoD) grocery list," writes the Center for Junior Officers. "It details every program or activity that should be continued, eliminated, or created. It even has proposals for how much should be spent."

Because it comes up annually, the NDAA has become a popular tool for lawmakers to tack on unrelated legislation. And some of those amendments are making its path through Congress considerably more difficult this year.

The House narrowly passed its bill mostly along party lines in July, breaking a 60-year precedent of passing with broad bipartisan support.

Hard-line House Republicans threatened to block a vote on the measure unless McCarthy agreed to their amendments on a range of policies. It eventually passed with new stipulations including measures eliminating the Pentagon's offices of diversity, equity and inclusion and prohibiting it from reimbursing travel expenses related to abortion care for service members.

"Extreme MAGA Republicans have hijacked a bipartisan bill that is essential to our national security and taken it over and weaponized it in order to jam their extreme right-wing ideology down the throats of the American people," House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries said at the time.

The Senate version, which passed later that month with much less drama, looks pretty different. Provisions include a 5.2% pay increase for military personnel and $300 million for Ukraine.

Now Congress has to reconcile the competing versions to pass an overall package — it typically aims to do so by the end of the fiscal year.

The final version needs to be able to pass the Senate with 60 votes and head to Biden's desk by the end of the calendar year.

The far-right Republicans who pushed for these controversial amendments are the same ones who pushed out McCarthy. It's not clear how his successor, whoever it is, will find a path forward.

If the NDAA doesn't pass before the end of 2023, lawmakers would need to bring it up again from scratch — and go through the entire process again — next year.

COVID-era relief

Staff and toddlers play at a daycare in Williamson, W.Va. in September.
Leah Willingham / AP
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AP
Staff and toddlers play at a daycare in Williamson, W.Va., in September.

Congress authorized trillions of dollars in pandemic relief in 2020 and 2021 to help households and industries struggling with the economic fallout.

Some of those programs have long expired — like the expanded child tax credit and direct stimulus checks. But Congress could have chosen to extend others.

Several pandemic-era benefits expired on Sept. 30, at the end of the fiscal year. Among them is emergency funding for childcare providers, which allowed many workers and parents to stay afloat financially.

Without further congressional action, some 70,000 childcare programs are projected to close — leaving 3.2 million children without care, according to a study by the progressive Century Foundation. It warns of the ripple effects that will have for working parents, businesses and state economies.

Supplemental pay for federal firefighters is also at stake. Congress gave federal first responders a temporary bump of $20,000 or 50%, whichever was less, retroactive to October 2021 and lasting for two years.

The hope was always that Congress would pass a permanent pay fix. While there have been bipartisan efforts in the Senate, the House has not similarly made progress.

All government funding bills

Congress has until Nov. 17 to avoid a government shutdown.
Mandel Ngan / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Congress has until Nov. 17 to avoid a government shutdown.

Congress hasn't passed any of the 12 appropriations bills it's supposed to enact by the start of the fiscal year on Oct. 1.

That in itself isn't unusual. It's only passed all of the required bills on time four times, most recently in 1997, according to Pew Research Center.

Congress can buy itself time by passing continuing resolutions, which extend funding for existing programs — for a designated amount of time — from the previous fiscal year.

The Senate had advanced all 12 of its appropriations bills by late July, the first time it had done so in five years, though has not passed any. The House has passed four.

With a government shutdown once again looming, and a to-do list growing, more than a dozen Republican senators wrote a letter to Majority Leader Chuck Schumer asking him to keep the Senate in session until it can pass all 12 bills.

The Senate was previously scheduled to be away on recess this coming week for members to do work in their home states.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.