Tensions rise in Senate’s legislative ‘graveyard’
Long-simmering tensions about the slow pace of legislation are boiling over in the Senate.
Senators are lashing out at each other in an increasingly public blame game about who is responsible for the chamber’s legislative agenda, which has largely ground to a halt this year.
The Senate is in its third week of voting only on nominations, though they’ll need to pass a stopgap spending bill before leaving for the weeklong Thanksgiving break.
Republicans argue the hyperfocus on impeachment has stalled or derailed several of their legislative priorities, including funding bills, defense policy legislation and a drug pricing measure.
“There are things that we have to do that … we’re not making any progress on because of the impeachment obsession over in the House. … I heard a number of Democrats in the House say they can walk and chew gum at the same time. Now is the time to prove it,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters Tuesday.
The GOP leader has taken to the Senate floor almost daily to knock Democrats, arguing that they are slow walking a range of issues.
“It’s the combination of impeachment, obviously, which is a huge distraction not just for the House but I think for Senate Democrats as well, and it’s just you know they want to on a regular basis pick fights with the president,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), McConnell’s No. 2.
Thune noted there were some bills, including legislation aimed at combating robocalls, that will pass, saying: “If we can’t pass that, we’re all in trouble.”
The snail’s pace of legislation comes as Republicans are getting daily questions about the House’s impeachment inquiry and hypotheticals about a Senate trial.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) hit back at Republicans on Tuesday, saying McConnell had turned the chamber into a “legislative graveyard.”
“The idea that the House impeachment inquiry is some sort of distraction from other issues is plain wrong. … We have over 200 House-passed bills we could consider here on the floor, and plenty of bipartisan Senate bills,” Schumer said from the Senate floor.
But the intensity has sparked some visible exasperation among a group of policy-focused senators, who are staring down several more weeks, and likely months, of impeachment-related questions if the chamber has to hold an impeachment trial for President Trump.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said Tuesday that the dynamic was frustrating, arguing that a recent Senate Health Committee hearing on vaping “got little or no coverage”
“I think the media wants the agenda to be totally focused on the impeachment hearings in the House,” she said.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), asked about lawmakers who want to focus on policy, retorted: “You probably wouldn’t be in the United States Senate. We don’t do policy, we do nominations.”
But the Senate’s slow pace stretches back to before the House formally began its impeachment inquiry. Of the chamber’s most recent 100 votes since the end of July, roughly 70 have been on or related to nominations — a top priority for Republicans and the Trump administration.
“I wish we’d go faster … but every time this subject is raised people want to blame McConnell and it’s not all Mitch’s doing. A lot of people go to Sen. McConnell privately and say I don’t want to vote on this, or I don’t want to vote on that, or this could hurt me in my reelection,” said GOP Sen. John Kennedy (La.).
“I would like to see not just more bills come to the floor, I’d like to see more bills coming from a committee,” Kennedy added.
The deep divisions in the chamber have thrown myriad bills into limbo, including the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and drug pricing legislation, and sparked concern that legislation is being stalled ahead of the 2020 election.
Sen. Joni Ernst (Iowa) said Tuesday that she believes her status as a GOP senator facing reelection is affecting the ability to get Democratic support for moving VAWA.
“If Chuck Schumer would say, ‘If Joni takes her name off of it, it will move,’ yeah, I would take my name off of it. … It’s only second, thirdhand information. But basically anybody that’s up in 2020, Schumer doesn’t want to move on legislation that’s sponsored by them,” Ernst told a small group of reporters.
Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), another GOP senator who is up for reelection next year, railed against “Schumer’s graveyard” during a floor speech — a play on Democrats’ dubbing the Senate a “legislative graveyard” — while standing next to a poster with tombstones detailing what legislation Schumer has killed.
“The Democratic leader loves to talk about the legislative graveyard here in the Senate. What he really means is he wants to control the agenda … as the minority leader,” he said.
Senate Democrats have brushed off the suggestion that impeachment, or 2020 gamesmanship on their part, is to blame for the chamber’s small list of legislative accomplishments.
Schumer hit back at McConnell on Tuesday, noting the GOP leader controls the floor and could bring up legislation for a vote if he wanted to.
Schumer, asked about Ernst’s comment, said Republicans should take their complaints to McConnell and ask him to bring up the House-passed VAWA bill with Ernst’s proposal as an amendment.
“A lot of our Republican colleagues are feeling the heat about McConnell’s legislative graveyard and the do-nothing Senate,” Schumer added. “If we were in charge of the floor we would be voting on a whole lot of legislation.”
Durbin knocked Republicans, saying that “a Senate is a terrible thing to waste.”
“We are wasting the United States Senate now,” he said. “Leader McConnell comes out here and says the reason we’re not doing anything is the impeachment inquiry … how do you explain the first 10 months of the year?”