2014 pressure builds on Dems

The Senate is racing to approve three must-pass bills this week and avoid falling even further behind its schedule at a time when voters are angry about gridlock in Washington.

With public approval of Washington dismally low, Senate Democrats face the greatest risk of a public backlash, because the House Republican majority is safe and President Obama does not face reelection.

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Two years after picking up two Senate seats and retaining control of the White House, Democrats have few legislative accomplishments to tout, and Republicans plan to use that as political ammo this fall.

The Republican National Committee repeatedly hammered Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Monday for not acting on House-passed bills.

“The Republican House has worked to create jobs. Obstructionist @SenatorReid stands in the way. #FireReid,” the RNC posted on Twitter, noting that more than 300 House bills are waiting in the Senate, including 43 bills meant to create jobs.

A House GOP leadership aide said 338 House-passed bills are waiting for action in the upper chamber.

A senior Democratic aide said Senate Republicans have cynically blocked legislation in the Senate to enable their candidates to run against a dysfunctional Congress.

“They like to say it’s unproductive, but look at how many bills we’ve brought up that they’ve filibustered,” the aide said. “They want to drag the place to a halt and say that’s our fault. That’s their strategy.”

Obama has blamed Republicans for the gridlock, but Senate Democrats facing difficult races in November may bear the brunt of voters’ frustration. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) is the only Senate GOP incumbent with a tough general election match-up.

The Democrats’ most significant accomplishment in this Congress was last year’s passage of comprehensive immigration reform, which gained backing from 14 Republicans. 

The Senate’s biggest failure to stick to its agenda has been in the realm of spending bills. Reid promised Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) that June and July would be devoted to moving her bills on the floor. 

With only a few days left before Congress’s August recess, however, not a single appropriations bill has received a vote. Reid blamed Republicans for causing that impasse by refusing to agree to a process for amendments to those bills.

Republicans in turn say Reid is afraid to put legislation on the floor that might subject vulnerable Democratic incumbents to tough political votes.

Reid will try to get three important bills passed by the end of the day Thursday, as well as a vote on a political messaging measure that calls for ending tax breaks for companies that transfer operations abroad.

As of Monday evening, Senate Democrats hoped to vote Wednesday on the Bring Jobs Home Act, which would end tax breaks for outsourcing, and a $3.57 billion emergency spending bill for the southern border crisis. The supplemental appropriations bill includes funding to combat Western wildfires and replenish Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense shield.

On Thursday, Reid wants to pass a $17 billion Senate-House compromise to reform the Veterans Affairs Department and an $11 billion House measure to keep the Highway Trust Fund solvent until late May.

The tentative plan is also to vote Thursday on an amendment to the transportation legislation, sponsored by Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), that would extend the trust fund until only December.

That would help make up for what has otherwise been a torpid year in Congress.

Drew DeSilver, a senior writer at the Pew Research Center, who tracks productivity in Congress, said the 113th Congress is on pace to eclipse the 112th Congress, which spanned 2011 and 2012, as the least productive in recent history.

Congress has enacted only 99 substantive public laws in the 113th Congress, alongside 29 pieces of ceremonial legislation, according to DeSilver. That puts the body on pace to pass about half as many substantive bills as the 112th Congress, when lawmakers narrowly avoided a government shutdown and a national default.

“If you measure productivity in terms of passing substantive legislation, then I think the numbers speak for themselves,” he said. “By the time the 112th was done, they had managed to pass 208 pieces of substantive legislation. The 113th is less than half that right now. They’ve got some work to do if they want to catch up.”

This week, the Veterans Affairs Department overhaul and the Highway Trust Fund fix are most likely to pass, but the Bring Jobs Home Act and the border package are unlikely to overcome Republican filibusters.

Just to get final votes on the highway and VA bills by the week’s end, Reid will need to get consent from Republicans. So it’s possible a last-minute spat over procedure could delay some of the agenda until September.

Reid also wanted to vote on legislation reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank during the July work period, but time ran out.