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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 CornynOvernight Defense: Capitol Police may ask National Guard to stay | Biden's Pentagon policy nominee faces criticism | Naval Academy midshipmen moved to hotels Senators introduce bill creating technology partnerships to compete with China Republicans blast Pentagon policy nominee over tweets, Iran nuclear deal 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 PelosiOvernight Defense: Capitol Police may ask National Guard to stay | Biden's Pentagon policy nominee faces criticism | Naval Academy midshipmen moved to hotels Top Republican: 'Outrageous' to extend National Guard deployment at Capitol Progressives won't oppose bill over limits on stimulus checks 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 McConnellRon Johnson grinds Senate to halt, irritating many Klain on Harris breaking tie: 'Every time she votes, we win' How to pass legislation in the Senate without eliminating the filibuster 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 ThuneRon Johnson grinds Senate to halt, irritating many Rick Scott caught in middle of opposing GOP factions Democrats cut deals to bolster support for relief bill 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 BluntTop Republican: 'Outrageous' to extend National Guard deployment at Capitol Five takeaways from dramatic Capitol security hearing Biden convenes bipartisan meeting on cancer research 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 ShelbyCBC 'unequivocally' endorses Shalanda Young for White House budget chief Black Caucus members lobby Biden to tap Shalanda Young for OMB head On The Money: Senate panels postpone Tanden meetings in negative sign | Biden signs supply chain order after 'positive' meeting with lawmakers 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 GrassleyGarland's AG nomination delayed by GOP roadblocks National Sheriffs' Association backs Biden pick for key DOJ role Bipartisan group of senators introduces bill to rein in Biden's war powers 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) MuellerWhy a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel CNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump 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 JeffriesXi'an Famous Foods CEO warns of anti-Asian hate crimes in NYC Democrats snipe on policy, GOP brawls over Trump Harris holds first meeting in ceremonial office with CBC members 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.”