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 CornynThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump says no legislation until Dems end probes Bipartisan House bill calls for strategy to protect 5G networks from foreign threats Collins offering bill to boost battery research as GOP pushes energy 'innovation' MORE (R-Texas) acknowledged it wasn’t clear.

ADVERTISEMENT

“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 PelosiPelosi, Nadler tangle on impeachment, contempt vote Hillary Clinton slams Trump for spreading 'sexist trash' about Pelosi Hillicon Valley: Facebook won't remove doctored Pelosi video | Trump denies knowledge of fake Pelosi videos | Controversy over new Assange charges | House Democrats seek bipartisan group on net neutrality 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 McConnellThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump orders more troops to Mideast amid Iran tensions What if 2020 election is disputed? Immigration bills move forward amid political upheaval 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 ThuneFrustration boils over with Senate's 'legislative graveyard' Hillicon Valley: Assange hit with 17 more charges | Facebook removes record 2.2B fake profiles | Senate passes anti-robocall bill | Senators offer bill to help companies remove Huawei equipment Senate passes anti-robocall 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 BluntHit singer Andy Grammer says 'unity' more important than any political party Top GOP senator: 'More harassment than oversight' in House Hillicon Valley: Trump takes flak for not joining anti-extremism pact | Phone carriers largely end sharing of location data | Huawei pushes back on ban | Florida lawmakers demand to learn counties hacked by Russians | Feds bust 0M cybercrime group 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 ShelbyOn The Money: Conservative blocks disaster relief bill | Trade high on agenda as Trump heads to Japan | Boeing reportedly faces SEC probe over 737 Max | Study finds CEO pay rising twice as fast as worker pay Conservative blocks House passage of disaster relief bill The Hill's Morning Report — After contentious week, Trump heads for Japan 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 GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyTrump-Pelosi fight threatens drug pricing talks Overnight Health Care — Presented by PCMA — Senators unveil sweeping bipartisan health care package | House lawmakers float Medicare pricing reforms | Dems offer bill to guarantee abortion access Bipartisan senators reveal sweeping health care package 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) Swan MuellerThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump orders more troops to Mideast amid Iran tensions Trump: Democrats just want Mueller to testify for a 'do-over' Graham: Mueller investigation a 'political rectal exam' 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 JeffriesThe Hill's Morning Report - Pelosi remains firm despite new impeachment push Overnight Defense: Trump officials say efforts to deter Iran are working | Trump taps new Air Force secretary | House panel passes defense bill that limits border wall funds House Democrats press leaders to start Trump impeachment 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.”