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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 McConnellOvernight Health Care: Following debate, Biden hammers Trump on coronavirus | Study: Universal mask-wearing could save 130,000 lives | Finger-pointing picks up in COVID-19 relief fight On The Money: Finger-pointing picks up in COVID-19 relief fight | Landlords, housing industry sue CDC to overturn eviction ban Finger-pointing picks up in COVID-19 relief fight 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 TrumpIvanka Trump, Jared Kusher's lawyer threatens to sue Lincoln Project over Times Square billboards Facebook, Twitter CEOs to testify before Senate Judiciary Committee on Nov. 17 Sanders hits back at Trump's attack on 'socialized medicine' 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 JohnsonSenate panels to interview former Hunter Biden business associate Friday Trump and advisers considering firing FBI director after election: WaPo Biden: Johnson should be 'ashamed' for suggesting family profited from their name 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 RubioSenate GOP to drop documentary series days before election hitting China, Democrats over coronavirus Bipartisan group of senators call on Trump to sanction Russia over Navalny poisoning Trump's new interest in water resources — why now? 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 ThuneFinger-pointing picks up in COVID-19 relief fight McConnell tees up Barrett nomination, setting up rare weekend session GOP power shift emerges with Trump, McConnell 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 on Trump's reported war dead criticism: 'Those comments didn't happen' Sarah Sanders memoir reportedly says Trump joked she should hook up with Kim Jong Un McEnany stamps her brand on White House press operation 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 SchumerTrump announces opening of relations between Sudan and Israel Five takeaways on Iran, Russia election interference Pelosi calls Iran 'bad actor' but not equivalent to Russia on election interference MORE (D-N.Y.) and Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOvernight Health Care: Following debate, Biden hammers Trump on coronavirus | Study: Universal mask-wearing could save 130,000 lives | Finger-pointing picks up in COVID-19 relief fight On The Money: Finger-pointing picks up in COVID-19 relief fight | Landlords, housing industry sue CDC to overturn eviction ban Finger-pointing picks up in COVID-19 relief fight 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 PaulMichigan Republican isolating after positive coronavirus test GOP Rep. Mike Bost tests positive for COVID-19 Top Democrats introduce resolution calling for mask mandate, testing program in Senate 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 ClintonBon Jovi to campaign with Biden in Pennsylvania The Hill's Campaign Report: 2020 spending wars | Biden looks to clean up oil comments | Debate ratings are in Biden gets late boost with key union endorsement 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 Health Care: Trump takes criticism of Fauci to a new level | GOP Health Committee chairman defends Fauci | Birx confronted Pence about Atlas Senate Democrats call for ramped up Capitol coronavirus testing Senate Democrats seek to alleviate public concern about some results not being available on election night 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.”