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 McConnellThe Hill's Morning Report - House prosecutes Trump as 'lawless,' 'corrupt' Tensions between McConnell and Schumer run high as trial gains momentum No. 2 GOP leader eyes Wednesday of next week for possible votes on witnesses 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 John TrumpMnuchin knocks Greta Thunberg's activism: Study economics and then 'come back' to us The Hill's Morning Report - House prosecutes Trump as 'lawless,' 'corrupt' What to watch for on Day 3 of Senate impeachment trial 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 JohnsonNadler gets under GOP's skin Restlessness, light rule-breaking and milk spotted on Senate floor as impeachment trial rolls on Senators opt to drink milk on Senate floor during impeachment trial 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 RubioLawmaker wants Chinese news outlet to register as foreign agent Apple under pressure to unlock Pensacola shooter's phones Senators offer bill to create alternatives to Huawei in 5G tech 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 ThuneNo. 2 GOP leader eyes Wednesday of next week for possible votes on witnesses Restlessness, light rule-breaking and milk spotted on Senate floor as impeachment trial rolls on Republicans take aim at Nadler for saying GOP senators complicit in 'cover-up' 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 Elizabeth SandersSarah Sanders says she 'can't think of anything dumber than' having Congress run foreign policy Rapid turnover shapes Trump's government God did not elect Trump, people did 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 SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerCollins walks impeachment tightrope 'Emotion' from Trump's legal team wins presidential plaudits Biden says he would not engage in witness swap in impeachment trial MORE (D-N.Y.) and Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiSekulow indicates White House not interested in motion to dismiss impeachment articles Overnight Health Care: Trump restores funding for Texas program that bars Planned Parenthood | Trump to attend March for Life | PhRMA spent record on 2019 lobbying Key House committee chairman to meet with Mnuchin on infrastructure next week 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 PaulSekulow indicates Trump should not attend impeachment trial Trump sets record for tweets as president on day House makes impeachment case Rand Paul invites Trump to see 'partisan charade' at Senate trial 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 ClintonCollins walks impeachment tightrope Hill.TV's Saagar Enjeti rips Sanders for 'inability to actually fight with bad actors' in party Hill.TV's Krystal Ball knocks Clinton's 'mean girl' comments against Sanders 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 MurphyTensions between McConnell and Schumer run high as trial gains momentum Nadler gets under GOP's skin Senate Republicans muscle through rules for Trump trial 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.”