With the Department of Homeland Security standoff in the rearview mirror, Senate Republicans are going on offense with proposals that divide Democrats such as an Iran oversight bill and trade legislation.
Senate Republicans are desperate to show they can govern after they largely wasted February haggling over a DHS funding bill without winning any of the concessions they hoped for on immigration.
After battling among themselves for weeks, Republicans now want to put Democrats on the defensive by pushing issues that split Democratic centrists and liberals.
“We’re definitely moving to offense. We’re hoping the Democrats want to work with us on some of those issues, but like usual we’re not holding our breath on that,” said Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneSmall ranchers say Biden letting them get squeezed These Senate seats are up for election in 2022 Watch: GOP leaders discuss Biden's first year in office MORE (S.D.), the third-ranking member of the Senate GOP leadership.
Senate Republicans are also moving to patch up relations with the House, with key committee chairmen holding joint meetings again after much of that activity was frozen during the DHS battle.
Senate Democrats last week accused Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBiden: A good coach knows when to change up the team McConnell says he made 'inadvertent omission' in voting remarks amid backlash These Senate seats are up for election in 2022 MORE (R-Ky.) of turning a bipartisan Iran bill into a wedge issue by pushing it on to the floor before the administration had completed its negotiations with the Iranian government over its nuclear program.
McConnell relented on bringing up the bipartisan bill, which would give Congress oversight over an Iranian nuclear deal, after Democrats vowed to unify and filibuster it.
“In an opportunistic moment he tried to drive a wedge between Democrats and Israel and with his backtracking, that move backfired,” said a senior Democratic aide.
Trade is another issue on the Senate agenda that divides Democrats. While President Obama has called on Congress to grant him fast-track authority to negotiate trade deals, Senate Democratic Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Connected Commerce Council - Biden faces reporters as his agenda teeters Biden hits one-year mark in dire straits 'All or nothing' won't bolster American democracy: Reform the filibuster and Electoral Count Act MORE (Nev.) is opposed.
“Over here they better be careful and not try to jam things here, because you could run into the same problem, because there’s a group of people who don’t like the trade thing. Is it a majority of Democrats? Probably,” Reid told The Wall Street Journal.
McConnell used the wedge strategy successfully with the first issue out of the gate in January, the Keystone XL pipeline. The Senate passed a measure approving the project with nine Democratic votes, sending it to Obama’s desk.
The president vetoed the Keystone bill, and the Senate failed to override him last week.
Don Stewart, McConnell’s spokesman, says the overarching goal is not to divide Democrats but instead to break the legislative logjam that stifled the chamber during four years of Democratic control.
“We actually want to pass legislation. We don’t want to have show votes. Last Congress was about making a point. This Congress about passing things,” he said.
Some Republicans are worried their party has squandered the first 60 days of the session by becoming bogged down in an intraparty fight over immigration and Homeland Security funding.
“I’m really concerned because the message we sent up in the election — and the people who responded gave us a majority — was send Harry Reid down and Mitch McConnell up and Republicans together would work to really show how we can govern,” said Sen. Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsAn independent commission should review our National Defense Strategy Overnight Hillicon Valley — Scrutiny over Instagram's impact on teens Former national security officials warn antitrust bills could help China in tech race MORE (R-Ind.).
“The clock is ticking already. We’re eating up a lot of time going nowhere. That’s the problem,” he added.
McConnell plans to move several relatively bipartisan initiatives in the next few weeks to put legislative points on the board.
This week he will move a bill to fight human trafficking with strong bipartisan support. It passed the Judiciary Committee unanimously.
The GOP leader also wants fast action on a bipartisan cybersecurity bill. But that measure could also divide Democrats, with the White House and some Democratic senators expressing concerns about privacy.
The biggest lift before the Easter Recess, however, is the budget resolution Senate Republicans hope to pass before the end of the month.
Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike EnziMichael (Mike) Bradley EnziLobbying world Cheney on same-sex marriage opposition: 'I was wrong' What Republicans should demand in exchange for raising the debt ceiling MORE (R-Wyo.) will mark up the budget the week of March 16 and is scheduled to bring it to the floor the following week.
“I’m talking to committee members about specific problems on it, trying to make sure we have support and we’ve covered all the problems,” he told reporters, noting that he and Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), the chairman of the House Budget panel, have held weekly meetings.
One of the major decisions that has yet to be made is how to use the special budgetary protection known as reconciliation, which would allow Republicans to pass a deficit-reducing measure with a simple majority vote.
Conservatives are pressing for a full repeal of ObamaCare through reconciliation, but other Republicans would like to see it used for tax and entitlement reform.
A senior Budget panel Republican said the strategy for budgetary reconciliation “is uncertain at this time.”
Meanwhile, Senate Homeland Security Chairman Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonSunday shows - Russia standoff over Ukraine dominates Ron Johnson: 'Americans are not looking for election reform' Democrats torn over pushing stolen-election narrative MORE (R-Wis.) is gearing up to move a border security and interior enforcement bill, the first step in the GOP’s immigration strategy.
He approached House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob GoodlatteRobert (Bob) William GoodlatteFight breaks out between Jordan, Nadler over rules about showing video at Garland hearing The job of shielding journalists is not finished Bottom line MORE (R-Va.) last week about recommencing talks.
“I talked to Bob Goodlatte as we were walking to the chamber for the [Benjamin] Netanyahu speech saying, we’ve got to get back together again,” he said, voicing frustration with the weeklong impasse over DHS funding.
“It certainly held up things in the Senate. I didn’t like to see it,” he said.
Republicans have a short window in which to rack up legislative accomplishments before 2016 presidential politics intrude.
Their path forward is complicated by a looming series of deadlines that are likely to spark controversy.
A one-year patch intended to freeze scheduled cuts to doctors’ payments will expire on March 31.
The Highway Trust Fund runs out of money on May 31.
And the federal debt limit — an issue that brought Congress to a standstill in 2011 and 2013 — will need to be raised by October or November, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
Amongst these deadlines, Republicans will have to find time to advance two of their biggest priorities: a replacement for ObamaCare, which will become more pressing if the Supreme Court strikes down the federal healthcare exchanges in 34 states, and tax reform.
A senior Senate Republican aide said both initiatives are wending their way through the committee process. The aide predicted healthcare legislation will remain under wraps until closer to when the Supreme Court is expected to rule in King v. Burwell. The case could strip healthcare subsidies from 7 million to 8 million people.