McConnell lays out agenda as House bills pile up

Senate Republicans are coming under fire from Democrats over the pileup of House-passed bills and realizing they need to take action beyond confirming President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump reversed course on flavored e-cigarette ban over fear of job losses: report Trump to award National Medal of Arts to actor Jon Voight Sondland notified Trump officials of investigation push ahead of Ukraine call: report MORE’s nominees.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellLawmakers skeptical of progress on spending deal as wall battle looms Impeachment battle looms over must-pass defense bill 'Saturday Night Live' presents Trump impeachment hearings with 'pizzazz' of soap opera MORE (R-Ky.) wants to get the appropriations process — which started off well last year and then stalled — back on track and rekindle talk of an infrastructure package, despite broad pessimism among his GOP colleagues about finding a way to pay for it.

Republicans say they expect movement on the National Defense Authorization Act, reauthorization of the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act and an overhaul of the National Flood Insurance Program.

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McConnell, however, has declined to commit to action on GOP-supported bills that prove risky, such as the annual Senate budget resolution, legislation to curb Trump’s ability to impose tariffs, and a measure that would make minor changes to the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.

He also won’t say whether Herman Cain, Trump’s pick for a Federal Reserve post, will come up for a floor vote. Four Senate Republicans have said they’re inclined to oppose Cain, which would leave him without enough votes if Democrats stand united in opposition.

“The single biggest thing we need to do and cannot do without each other is the spending caps,” McConnell told reporters this past week when asked what’s on the legislative agenda for the rest of the 116th Congress.

He sees the spending caps as an area where Democrats will negotiate because they don’t want to be stuck with passing a stopgap spending measure at year’s end or letting automatic spending cuts known as sequestration go into effect in January.

Beyond that, the GOP leader is holding out hope for an infrastructure deal, though he insists its cost must be offset. 

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“Everybody loves infrastructure in the abstract. The real issue is how you’re going to pay for it. The only thing I would rule out is we’re not doing another $900 billion stimulus, which, remember, was done in the first year of the Obama administration,” McConnell said, referring to the 2009 stimulus package that funded an array of “shovel-ready” infrastructure projects to boost the economy after the 2008 financial collapse.

“I think we’ll be able to find other things,” McConnell said of legislative items that could move before the 2020 election.

He is also floating the possibility of bipartisan legislation to address the migrant surge at the southern border.

“Some of those problems can’t be addressed under current law, so I think it’s way past time on both sides that we sit down together and see what we can agree to to improve the situation,” he said. “Not only border security but also the asylum laws are very challenging when you’re confronted with this onslaught of people.”

“It can’t all be solved by changing personnel,” he added, referring to the president’s recent shake-up of the Department of Homeland Security. “Some of it requires changing that law. That means we have to deal with the Democrats; they’re in the majority in the House.”

But McConnell hasn’t weighed in on other matters, such as negotiations among GOP members of the Senate Finance Committee who have competing proposals to rein in Trump’s tariff authority, nor has he said whether the chamber will move a bill making corrections to the 2017 tax reform law.

The Kentucky Republican has remained tight-lipped for most of this year about the GOP agenda for the 116th Congress, frequently telling colleagues and reporters that his first priority is to confirm Trump’s judicial nominees to lifetime positions on federal circuit and district courts.

McConnell attacked Democrats when they controlled the Senate in 2014, criticizing them for what he called a lack of legislative accomplishments. At the time, he promised that if Republicans won the majority they would “work harder and accomplish more.”

This year, the GOP leader has come under growing pressure from Democrats over what is becoming a pileup of House-passed Democratic bills.

“Leader McConnell has turned the Senate into a legislative graveyard for priorities the American people care about. The greatest challenges we face — health care, income inequality, voting rights, gun safety, the environment, paycheck fairness — McConnell and the Republicans refuse to take any action,” Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerOvernight Health Care: Trump officials making changes to drug pricing proposal | House panel advances flavored e-cig ban | Senators press FDA tobacco chief on vaping ban Chad Wolf becomes acting DHS secretary Schumer blocks drug pricing measure during Senate fight, seeking larger action MORE (D-N.Y.) told reporters as Congress prepared to take a two-week recess after its first 100 days in session.

So far this year, the House has passed several high-profile pieces of legislation: a package of campaign fundraising, ethics and election reform provisions known as H.R. 1; expanded background checks for firearm sales; the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2019; the Paycheck Fairness Act; a disaster aid package; a net neutrality bill; and several measures addressing the Department of Justice’s lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act.

“The House has passed a whole lot of bills on these issues. Will McConnell put them on the floor? No, they don't have to put those bills on the floor. Let them put any bill on the floor on those issues, and let's debate them,” Schumer said.

The Senate is likely to take up the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization and disaster relief, but those efforts are stalled amid partisan squabbling.

The House-passed campaign finance and election reform package, the Paycheck Fairness Act, and net neutrality aren’t expected to reach the Senate floor.

McConnell has dismissed H.R. 1 as the “Democrat politician protection act,” arguing it would limit free speech and provide taxpayer-funded subsidies to political campaigns.

On Tuesday, he declared the net neutrality legislation “dead on arrival,” while he has criticized paycheck fairness legislation in the past as a sop to liberal interest groups.

Schumer argues that McConnell has by and large shut down legislative activity in the Senate and predicts that history will judge him harshly for turning the chamber into a confirmation machine for Trump’s nominees at the expense of bipartisan legislative accomplishment.

Democrats say Republicans have broken their promise to return the Senate to a chamber of robust debate.

After Republicans won the majority in November 2014, McConnell declared, “The Senate in the last few years basically doesn’t do anything. We don’t even vote.”

Now, Democrats are stealing a page from McConnell’s 2014 playbook.

“He’s hanging his entire hat on putting all these judges in, and I don’t think history is going to look kindly on either the way he’s changed the rules to do that but more importantly how the Senate has done so little on the major issues of the day,” Schumer told reporters this past week.

That criticism struck a nerve with McConnell, a keen student of history, who shot back that Schumer can’t have it both ways — lament the lasting impact that Trump’s nominees will have on the federal bench while also dinging the GOP leader for not doing anything of substance on the Senate floor.

McConnell says the full-tilt focus on confirming judges will continue.

“The pace is moving as rapidly as the rules allow right now, and that will continue when we get back” from the two-week Easter recess, he said, noting a “backlog” of 53 district court nominees.