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Senate Republicans are returning to Washington with time running out on their hopes of getting anything done in the second year of their majority.

A wild presidential primary has overshadowed the Senate’s work, and big-ticket items such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and criminal sentencing reform have been shelved.

{mosads}That means Senate Republicans planning to tout their majority’s accomplishments will have to lean heavily on their 2015 record.

“This has been one of the least productive Congresses in decades,” said Darrell West, director of governance studies at the left-leaning Brookings Institution. “They went into election mode very early in the cycle.”

Only 50 legislative days remain until Congress breaks for the political conventions in July, a shorter calendar than in recent presidential cycles.

The count includes Mondays, when few meaningful votes are held so that senators can travel back to their home states to campaign, but not Fridays. No one is expecting longer weeks given the need to campaign in an election year in which the GOP’s majority is under serious threat.

The good news for Senate Republicans, who would lose their majority if Democrats net four seats and retain the White House, is that they have a number of accomplishments to tout from 2015.

The Senate in its first year under Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) passed a multi-year highway bill, fast-track trade negotiating authority for President Obama, a veterans’ health bill, the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, legislation reforming the No Child Left Behind Act, a cybersecurity bill and an end to the oil export ban.

Lawmakers also hammered out a budget deal that erased the automatic spending cuts known as sequestration, lifted the debt limit and passed a $680 billion deal that made permanent several high-profile tax breaks.

But it’s been a different story in 2016.

The biggest story in the Senate is the fight to replace Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in February.

In that battle, Senate Republicans are blockading any vote or hearing on Obama’s nominee to replace Scalia, Merrick Garland.

Democrats believe that’s been a political gift for their party that allows it to cast the GOP as obstructionist.

Protesters chanted, “Do your job,” outside Sen. Kelly Ayotte’s (R-N.H.) office in Portsmouth and picketed a breakfast Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) attended in State College during the first Monday of the break.

Both are up for reelection this year in states won in 2008 and 2012 by President Obama.

Senate Republicans argue they’ve had a productive start to the year, pointing to legislation addressing opioid addiction, placing sanctions on North Korea and the so-called customs bill, which enhances enforcement of trade agreements and included language extending a ban on state and local government taxes on the Internet. 

They also cite the Evidence-Based Policymaking Commission Act, a Freedom of Information Act-related measure and the Judicial Redress Act, which all passed with unanimous consent, as accomplishments.

“The simple fact is that the GOP-led Senate is back to work for the American people,” said Antonia Ferrier, staff director of the Senate GOP Communications Center.

“Just this year we’ve passed legislation protecting innovation from theft, making a ban on Internet taxes permanent, and combatting heroin and opioid abuse — to name just a few. Up next is a bipartisan [Federal Aviation Administration] bill that helps consumers,” she added. “These accomplishments are on top of a successful year last year where Senators of both parties came together where they could to make real progress for the American people.”

But these bills have received scant attention as the media — and even lawmakers themselves — have focused far more on Donald Trump’s improbable march to the GOP nomination.

Many are openly worried that a GOP ticket let by conservative Ted Cruz or Trump, who scored a 67 percent unfavorable rating in a recent ABC News-Washington Post poll, could cost the GOP its Senate or even House majority.

Senators are barraged daily with questions about the latest Trump-related controversy, his likely impact on their own political survivals and the possibility of a brokered convention in Cleveland. Queries about the business on the Senate floor are seldom heard these days.

Senate Republicans will also be running with just a 13 percent approval rating, according to a March Gallup poll. Worse still, President Obama’s approval ratings, at 50 percent, are good by comparison.

Some Republican senators in purple or blue states have chaffed at McConnell’s Supreme Court strategy. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), considered the most vulnerable Senate Republican, met with Garland last week and said that he should receive a Senate vote.

But it has been embraced by a conservative movement that does not want Obama to be able to tilt the court to the left.

“The Senate has been very productive in blocking the Supreme Court from being captured by liberal Democrats,” said Brian Darling, a former aide to Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).

Darling separately argues that Senate Republicans could be awarded by voters for blocking Obama.

“The American people are fed up with Washington, and they don’t feel like Washington is doing anything, but they also don’t want Washington to do bad things, like raising taxes and passing budget-busting bills,” he said. “So it’s probably for the best that Republicans are blocking everything and stopping things.”

McConnell himself, however, suggested in January — before Scalia’s death changed the Senate’s business and before Trump had won a single state — that he wanted to get things done in 2016.

The GOP leader opened the year saying that he wanted to pass all 12 annual spending bills individually, something that hasn’t been done in decades and would be a significant accomplishment.

“I don’t think that just because we have an election, that’s an excuse for not accomplishing anything, and if you look around at what needs to be done that has the potential to have significant bipartisan support, it would be the appropriation bills,” he said at the time.

Senate colleagues are deeply skeptical the GOP leader will meet this goal given the tight calendar.

After the Senate returns from a recess spanning half of July and all of August, it will be in session four weeks in September and only the first week of October. The chamber will be out for the final three weeks of October and the first two weeks of November to give endangered incumbents as much time as possible to campaign. 

McConnell also promised that if Republicans took control of the upper chamber, they would pass a budget every year. But Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) has postponed action and after only 15 months in the majority, Republicans may soon break that promise.

Votes on an authorization of military force against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and on overseas corporate tax reform, two other items that seemed possible in early January, are now highly unlikely.

Tags Criminal justice reform Donald Trump Kelly Ayotte Mark Kirk Mike Enzi Mitch McConnell Rand Paul Supreme Court Ted Cruz TPP Trade

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