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 McConnellOvernight Defense: Shanahan exit shocks Washington | Pentagon left rudderless | Lawmakers want answers on Mideast troop deployment | Senate could vote on Saudi arms deal this week | Pompeo says Trump doesn't want war with Iran Senators reach .5B deal on Trump's emergency border request Senators reach .5B deal on Trump's emergency border request 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 TrumpGOP senator introduces bill to hold online platforms liable for political bias Rubio responds to journalist who called it 'strange' to see him at Trump rally Rubio responds to journalist who called it 'strange' to see him at Trump rally 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 JohnsonHillicon Valley: Lawmakers angered over Border Patrol breach | Senate Dems press FBI over Russian hacking response | Emails reportedly show Zuckerberg knew of Facebook's privacy issues | FCC looks to improve broadband mapping Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers angered over Border Patrol breach | Senate Dems press FBI over Russian hacking response | Emails reportedly show Zuckerberg knew of Facebook's privacy issues | FCC looks to improve broadband mapping Lawmakers demand answers on Border Patrol data breach 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 RubioRubio responds to journalist who called it 'strange' to see him at Trump rally Rubio responds to journalist who called it 'strange' to see him at Trump rally Overnight Defense: US to send 1K more troops to Mideast amid Iran tensions | Iran threatens to break limit on uranium production in 10 days | US accuses Iran of 'nuclear blackmail' | Details on key defense bill amendments 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 ThuneHillicon Valley: GOP senator wants one agency to run tech probes | Huawei expects to lose B in sales from US ban | Self-driving car bill faces tough road ahead | Elon Musk tweets that he 'deleted' his Twitter account Hillicon Valley: GOP senator wants one agency to run tech probes | Huawei expects to lose B in sales from US ban | Self-driving car bill faces tough road ahead | Elon Musk tweets that he 'deleted' his Twitter account New push to regulate self-driving cars faces tough road 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 SandersWhat President Trump needs in his next press secretary  Five memorable moments from Sarah Sanders at the White House Five memorable moments from Sarah Sanders at the White House 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 SchumerDemocrats detail new strategy to pressure McConnell on election security bills Democrats detail new strategy to pressure McConnell on election security bills Ex-state senator in North Carolina enters race against Tillis MORE (D-N.Y.) and Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiPelosi slated to deliver remarks during panel hearing on poverty The DNC's climate problems run deep Cracks form in Democratic dam against impeachment 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 PaulOvernight Defense: Shanahan exit shocks Washington | Pentagon left rudderless | Lawmakers want answers on Mideast troop deployment | Senate could vote on Saudi arms deal this week | Pompeo says Trump doesn't want war with Iran Senators demand Trump explain decision to deploy troops amid Iran tensions Senators demand Trump explain decision to deploy troops amid Iran tensions 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 ClintonFive takeaways from Trump's 2020 kickoff rally Five takeaways from Trump's 2020 kickoff rally Trump jokes he'd get 'electric chair' if he deleted even one 'love note' email to Melania 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 MurphyOvernight Defense: Shanahan exit shocks Washington | Pentagon left rudderless | Lawmakers want answers on Mideast troop deployment | Senate could vote on Saudi arms deal this week | Pompeo says Trump doesn't want war with Iran Senators demand Trump explain decision to deploy troops amid Iran tensions Senators demand Trump explain decision to deploy troops amid Iran tensions 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.”