Legislation slows to crawl in divided Washington

Roughly 100 days into the new Congress, the business of legislating is slowing to a crawl on Capitol Hill.

Of the 10 bills that have been signed into law so far this year only two were substantial enough to require roll call votes in the Senate. Both — a government funding deal and a lands package—were holdovers from last year.

Asked what big items were on the Senate GOP legislative agenda, Sen. John CornynJohn CornynBiden officials pledge to confront cybersecurity challenges head-on Eight Republicans join Democrats to confirm head of DOJ environmental division Federal officials abroad are unprotected — in a world of increasing volatility MORE (R-Texas) acknowledged it wasn’t clear.

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“Now that we have divided Congress it really depends pretty much on Ms. Pelosi [and] what she’s willing to do. So far we don’t really know the answer to that,” said Cornyn, referring to Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiHouse to resume mask mandate after new CDC guidance McCarthy pulls GOP picks off House economic panel GOP up in arms over Cheney, Kinzinger MORE (D-Calif.).

The shift reflects a government divided between Democrats in the House and Republicans in the Senate and White House, and is a shift from the complete control the GOP enjoyed in the first two years of the Trump presidency.

By this point in 2017, Senate Republicans had held 111 roll call votes, compared to 64 when they left town Thursday. The GOP had also confirmed Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, rolled back several Obama-era regulations and taken a first step toward trying to repeal ObamaCare.

Given the unlikelihood of Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellHouse to resume mask mandate after new CDC guidance Five takeaways from a bracing day of Jan. 6 testimony McCarthy, McConnell say they didn't watch Jan. 6 hearing MORE (R-Ky.) and Trump teaming up on bipartisan legislation, lawmakers are likely to stick to smaller bills between now and the 2020 election.

Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneSenators reach billion deal on emergency Capitol security bill Senators scramble to save infrastructure deal GOP sees debt ceiling as its leverage against Biden MORE (R-S.D.) said “things that are sort of incremental” are likely the “only things that are actually going to get done this year.”

“You have to realize that you’re going to be dealing with some political forces up here that are going to be pretty difficult over the course of the next ... two years,” he said.

Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntEight Republicans join Democrats to confirm head of DOJ environmental division The Hill's Morning Report - Will Schumer back down on his deadline? GOP fumes over Schumer hardball strategy MORE (R-Mo.), another member of leadership, said lawmakers’ “lesson” from the previous Congress should be to fund the entire government by the end-of-September deadline.

“We need to now move forward just the fundamental things that need to be done to fund the government,” Blunt said. “If we did that, and two or three other things … that would be a really good legislative year.”

Congress has until Oct. 1 to pass 12 appropriations bills and avoid a second government shutdown this year. Lawmakers routinely miss the deadline and have to pass a continuing resolution (CR) and punt the funding fight.

In a sign of potential trouble to come, a disaster aid package, normally a bill that would get significant bipartisan support, has derailed in the Senate amid a fight between Democrats and Trump over additional assistance to Puerto Rico.

Sen. Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyOvernight Defense: Senators reach billion deal on emergency Capitol security bill | House panel looks to help military sexual assault survivors | US increases airstrikes to help Afghan forces fight Taliban On The Money: Schumer, Warren call on Biden to extend student loan pause | IMF estimates 6 percent global growth this year Senators reach billion deal on emergency Capitol security bill MORE (R-Ala.) described the state of play on the disaster aid bill as at an “impasse,” a “crawl,” a “standstill” and a “standoff.”

Asked how lawmakers would be able to get a larger deal on funding the government if they weren’t able to clinch smaller deals on disaster aid, Shelby added that he didn’t “think it bodes well.”

In addition to funding the government there is a laundry list of must pass bills on Congress’s plate: raising the debt ceiling, getting a deal on defense and non-defense budget caps to avoid sequestration and a massive defense policy bill.

There’s also a looming question about the chances for Trump’s new trade agreement with Canada and Mexico, dubbed NAFTA 2.0, getting through Congress.

Sen. Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyOvernight Health Care: CDC advises vaccinated to wear masks in high-risk areas | Biden admin considering vaccine mandate for federal workers Eight Republicans join Democrats to confirm head of DOJ environmental division Four senators call on Becerra to back importation of prescription drugs from Canada MORE (R-Iowa), the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, is urging Trump to drop the steel and aluminum tariffs against Canada and Mexico because it would “help clear the path” for his trade agreement to be ratified.

“This must be done in the next two months—I guess you’d say the next three months—if this is going to be done this year,” Grassley added.

Democrats have been able to use archaic legislative rules to bring up votes on two issues that were not supported by McConnell in the Senate and force Trump to use the first two vetoes of his administration: A resolution blocking his emergency declaration and a likely second veto on a resolution forcing him to nix U.S. support for the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen.

House Democrats have also held a steady pace of high-profile votes, including on a wide-ranging ethics reform bill, a resolution calling on special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerSenate Democrats urge Garland not to fight court order to release Trump obstruction memo Why a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel MORE’s Russia report to be released and a reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, that are going nowhere in the Senate.

McConnell has dubbed the election reform bill the “Democratic Politician Protection Act,” Republicans have blocked the Mueller resolution five times and senators are crafting on their own VAWA bill.

Rep. Hakeem JeffriesHakeem Sekou JeffriesJeffries: 'Sick and cynical' for GOP to blame Pelosi for Jan. 6 Democrat unveils bill to allow only House members to serve as Speaker Progressive fighting turns personal on internal call over antitrust bills MORE (D-N.Y.) argued that McConnell is “engaged in the permanent campaign.”

“We were sent to Congress, fundamentally to govern on behalf of the American people, which in a divided government context, requires us to work together to try to find common ground,” he said.
McConnell acknowledged during a recent press conference that with divided government the opportunities for bipartisan legislation are “more limited.”

“The House will be sending us a lot of bills that we are not likely to take up. We're probably going to be sending them a lot of bills that they're not going to take up,” he said.

McConnell hasn’t shied away from using the Senate floor to force Democrats to go on the record on divisive issues as he hunts for fodder ahead of the 2020 presidential election. He forced a vote last month on the Green New Deal, a progressive resolution that divides the Senate Democratic caucus.

Cornyn suggested that Republicans should force votes on issues being touted in the 2020 Democratic White House fight as a way to force senators, several of whom are running for president, to go on the record.

“I think that would be great,” Cornyn said. “We ought to break it up into small pieces and have them vote.”