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Frustration boils over with Senate's 'legislative graveyard'

Senators are growing increasingly frustrated as legislative activity has slowed to a crawl during the first half of the year.

The Senate voted on two bills Thursday, breaking a nearly two-month drought during which Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellCan Manchin answer his predecessor's call on voting rights? Biden at Sen. John Warner's funeral: He 'gave me confidence' Democrats' narrow chance to retain control after 2022 MORE (R-Ky.) has focused instead on judicial nominations, his top priority.

The lack of floor action has left lawmakers publicly complaining, even though the high-profile feuding between President TrumpDonald TrumpIran claims U.S. to lift all oil sanctions but State Department says 'nothing is agreed' Ivanka Trump, Kushner distance themselves from Trump claims on election: CNN Overnight Defense: Joint Chiefs chairman clashes with GOP on critical race theory | House bill introduced to overhaul military justice system as sexual assault reform builds momentum MORE and congressional Democrats makes it highly unlikely that large-scale bipartisan legislation will succeed heading into the 2020 elections.

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Tensions boiled over onto the Senate floor this week when Sen. John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (R-La.) knocked the slow start to the new Congress, characterizing lawmakers as having done “nothing, zilch, zero, nada.”

“I’m not saying we haven’t done anything. We have confirmed some very important nominees to the Trump administration, long overdue,” Kennedy said. “I’m saying we need to do more.”

Asked how he felt about the pace of legislation in the Senate this year, Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonOvernight Defense: Joint Chiefs warn against sweeping reform to military justice system | Senate panel plans July briefing on war authorization repeal | National Guard may have 'training issues' if not reimbursed Senate panel plans July briefing on war authorization repeal Overnight Defense: Senate panel delays Iraq war powers repeal | Study IDs Fort Hood as least-safe base for female soldiers | Pentagon loosens some COVID-19 restrictions MORE (R-Wis.) shot back: “What legislation?”

“So it’s pretty slow, isn’t it?” he asked.

Before Thursday, when the chamber passed bills addressing robocalls and disaster relief, the Senate’s previous roll-call vote on legislation was April 1, when senators rejected disaster aid proposals. And the most recent bill passed via roll call was in mid-March, when senators voted for a resolution to nix Trump’s emergency declaration for the U.S.-Mexico border.

Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioOvernight Defense: Joint Chiefs warn against sweeping reform to military justice system | Senate panel plans July briefing on war authorization repeal | National Guard may have 'training issues' if not reimbursed Senate panel plans July briefing on war authorization repeal Rising violent crime poses new challenge for White House MORE (R-Fla.) said the inability to get legislation through the Senate was “frustrating,” but he argued that major agenda-setting bills were difficult without unified control of Congress.

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“I’m not sure what we can do about it except to wait to hopefully take back the House one day,” Rubio said.

Of the 17 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 measures — a government funding deal and a lands package — were holdovers from the previous Congress.

Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - GOP torpedoes election bill; infrastructure talks hit snag White House digs in as infrastructure talks stall On The Money: Democrats make full-court press on expanded child tax credit | White House confident Congress will raise debt ceiling MORE (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, acknowledged there were some frustrations within the caucus, which he described as being filled with “Type A” personalities, but said confirming nominees is a priority held by all Republican senators, who changed the rules to speed up most of Trump’s picks.

“Our members — these are people who are Type A personalities, in most cases, to get to the Senate — they want to get things done. We all do,” Thune said. “There’s stuff out there to do. And our members ... appreciate the fact that we continue to process judges.”

McConnell, when asked about the chance for bipartisan deals, said Congress would likely be sending fewer bills to Trump’s desk in an era of divided government. 

“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,” McConnell told reporters during a press conference earlier this year.

Senate Republicans aren’t the only ones who are publicly airing their grievances over the inability to get major bills moving.

Trump and White House officials have argued that House Democrats haven’t accomplished anything since they took over in January. White House press secretary Sarah HuckabeeSarah SandersTrump expected to resume rallies in June Andrew Giuliani planning run for New York governor Trump appears at Sarah Huckabee Sanders campaign event MORE Sanders told CNN on Thursday that Democrats have “yet to accomplish a single thing” and that Congress this year hasn’t passed legislation that will “change the course of the country.”

Her comments came after Trump walked out of a meeting Wednesday with Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerDemocrats urge Biden to extend moratorium on student loan payments White House draws ire of progressives amid voting rights defeat Murkowski to vote 'no' on voting rights bill MORE (D-N.Y.) and Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiSchumer vows to advance two-pronged infrastructure plan next month Senators say White House aides agreed to infrastructure 'framework' Tim Cook called Pelosi to say tech antitrust bills were rushed MORE (D-Calif.), throwing a curveball into the chances of reaching a deal on infrastructure or a budget caps agreement and complicating Trump’s goal of getting a new trade agreement through Congress.

Thune, asked about Sanders’s comments, added that the “reality you deal with is if you want to see something become law it’s going to be something that enjoys pretty broad bipartisan support.”

“I don’t know what she’s talking about in terms of big, consequential legislation. They haven’t been able to get their act together on what they want to propose in terms of infrastructure. I don’t think they have their own health care plan,” Thune said. “But we can kind of know what the traffic will bear in the Senate, and have a pretty good idea about what it will bear in the House.”

Republicans argue that there’s still time to increase the pace of legislation after a slow start to the year, which began amid a partial government shutdown that stretched on for a record 35 days. Before the Senate left town for the Memorial Day break, McConnell teed up a vote on a budget proposal from Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulPoll: 58 percent say Fauci should not resign Fauci says he puts 'very little weight in the craziness of condemning me' Senate confirms Biden pick for No. 2 role at Interior MORE (R-Ky.), along with more nominations.

“I would expect the pace to pick up again — you have to reconstitute the committees, you have to start holding hearings, you have to draft the legislation,” Johnson said.

“The leader is definitely asking committee chairman, ‘bring me some bipartisan legislation,’” he added, referring to McConnell.

Republicans are defending 22 seats heading into the 2020 elections, compared to a dozen for Democrats. Two of those GOP seats — Colorado and Maine — are in states won by 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonCommunion vote puts spotlight on Hispanic Catholics Trump's biggest political obstacle is Trump The Memo: Some Democrats worry rising crime will cost them MORE

Democrats also view states like Arizona, Georgia, Iowa and North Carolina as potential pickups.

Asked how GOP senators could run on their record if the Senate wasn’t passing much legislation, Rubio responded by saying it was a “challenge.” He predicted that “we will pass uncontroversial, bipartisan pieces of legislation ... so people can build records on that.”

Democrats, meanwhile, have rallied behind blasting McConnell for not moving more legislation, terming the Senate a “legislative graveyard.”

Schumer, in one of several instances where Democrats have dropped the phrase in recent weeks, pointed to a stalemate over the Violence Against Women Act as another example of how McConnell “has turned this chamber into a legislative graveyard.”

“Even the most commonsense bills with broad support from one end of America to the other that are passed by the House ... meet the grim fate at the hands of the Senate’s self-proclaimed ‘grim reaper,’” Schumer said.

Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphySenators say White House aides agreed to infrastructure 'framework' 'Killibuster': Democratic angst grows as filibuster threatens agenda Senate GOP blocks voting rights bill MORE (D-Conn.), who has accused McConnell of turning the Senate into a “very expensive lunch club,” added that Democrats should highlight McConnell’s refusal to move legislation on issues like health care or gun control as they make the case for Democratic control of the Senate.

“We got to get the Senate working again,” he said. “We’ve got to be debating health care. We’ve got to be debating guns. We’ve got to be debating immigration.”

Asked about the Senate’s legislative agenda so far this year, he said: “I mean, it’s nonexistent. I can’t remember the last time I voted on an amendment on the Senate floor.”