Finger-pointing, gridlock spark frustration in Senate
Election-year gridlock is gripping the Senate and sparking deep frustration amongst lawmakers.
Senators have watched as recent legislative priorities like police reform have unraveled, negotiations on funding the government hit a wall and pleas to move quickly on coronavirus relief went unanswered.
With the November election increasingly looming over the Capitol, chances are drying up.
The parties disagree over who is to blame for the impasse.
Republicans blame Democrats, saying the party is more focused on election-year messaging than legislating.
Democrats blame the GOP, which it says is more focused on confirming nominees for President Trump while it maintains a Senate majority.
They fumed when the Senate returned to Washington in May but did not turn to coronavirus legislation and failed to jump-start bipartisan negotiations on police reform.
“It’s all about judges. That’s all that McConnell really cares about. … How many weeks did we spend here without any efforts on COVID-19?” said Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat.
Durbin’s reference was to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has sought to contrast the GOP-controlled Senate with the Democratic-controlled House.
McConnell argues the Senate has spent the months of the COVID-19 pandemic working, while the House has not.
“The House has been largely out of session since March. They’ve come back a couple of times even though the Senate has been in continuously since May,” he said during an event in Kentucky on Wednesday.
Durbin scoffed at that argument, while Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said he was “disturbed” by the Senate’s inaction on a coronavirus measure.
“I thought we were going to do one because the need is intense, and the fact that the GOP has not been interested … is a huge disappointment in the last few weeks,” Kaine said.
Democrats, before the Senate left for a two-week recess, tried to pass several coronavirus-related bills. Only one, an extension of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), passed the Senate unanimously in a surprise move.
Republicans argue the Senate has had plenty of accomplishments since May.
McConnell’s office blasted out a release, titled “A Tale of Two Chambers,” touting the GOP-controlled Senate’s work on the PPP, confirming circuit court nominations — including Trump’s 200th judicial nominee — and passing a lands package spearheaded by Sens. Cory Gardner (R-Colo) and Steve Daines (R-Mont.), who both face tough reelection bids.
Republicans also say Democrats and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) have rejected potential deals to deprive Republicans of legislative wins before the election.
“I think they have sort of locked down on their side with the belief that they could potentially be in the majority,” said Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican. “On a couple of these major pieces of legislation that we’ve been working on that he’s been very involved in trying to keep his guys together and block anything that Republicans might do.”
“I hope that’s not the case … but it’s pretty clear that that’s the vibe that’s coming from their side,” he added.
Republicans lashed out at Democrats for blocking the police reform measure spearheaded by Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.), the only Black Republican senator. Scott on Wednesday said he was talking with House Democrats but stopped short of saying the issue was revived, adding that “we may have a Lazarus moment, we may not.”
Democrats denied that they were blocking the police reform bill because of the election, arguing that McConnell should negotiate instead of insisting that Democrats first vote to advance the measure.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has accused Schumer of pulling Democrats away from supporting a prescription drug bill.
“When we had to reintroduce the bill that was a little bit updated the Democrats decided not to go along. They got word from Schumer that we couldn’t let Republicans … even get credit for a bipartisan bill that the president maybe wanted,” he told reporters during a press conference this week.
Amid the feuding over individual bills, the Senate has also hit a wall on negotiations over how to fund the government amid an entrenched stalemate about whether to use the funding bills to try to enact police reforms. Congress is all but guaranteed to need to approve a continuing resolution, which continues fiscal 2020 spending levels, to keep the government open past Sept. 30, when the current funding runs out.
Asked how his talks with Sen. Patrick Leahy (Vt.), the top Democrat on the panel, were going, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), said “slowly.”
“Leahy and I talk. … We can move if we can reach an agreement. Now will we reach it? It’s a lot of politics,” Shelby said.
The House is moving forward with its own government funding bills, but the proposals are filled with provisions viewed as “poison pills” by Republicans, making it likely that they go nowhere in the GOP-controlled Senate.
That gridlock could bleed into the upcoming negotiations on the next coronavirus bill, though both McConnell and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have predicted they will ultimately be able to get a deal.
Durbin, however, questioned if Republicans would be willing to take up another coronavirus measure in July.
McConnell on Wednesday once again dismissed the roughly $3 trillion coronavirus relief bill passed by the House in May, calling it “unserious.”
He also brought up Democrats blocking the GOP police bill as he predicted the effort to pass a coronavirus relief measure would be complicated.
“I predict the next effort will be more contentious than the last one. We’re four months closer to the election. There’s a lot more elbowing going on,” McConnell said in remarks in Kentucky. “To give you an example of that, I tried to call up two weeks ago a police reform bill … and our Democratic colleagues wouldn’t even let us take the bill up.”
“I would call that a much more political environment,” McConnell added. “So we will be as we try to work our way through this, confronting more headwinds because of the proximity to the election.”