The Senate is well-known for its deliberative ways, but the first three months of this new Congress are off to a historically sluggish start.
When senators return Monday night for a vote on a judicial nominee, it will be just their 50th roll call of the year, and with only a couple of other votes likely for the week, the Senate will hit the three-month mark of 2019 about 50 percent behind the pace that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) set in early 2017 after President Trump took office.
The slow start is indicative of a broader problem for Trump, McConnell and Republicans, as they head into the 2020 election season with a policy agenda that is fairly timid and has so far been mostly invisible in the GOP-controlled Senate.
The first few weeks of January and February dealt mostly with the leftover mess from last year, reopening portions of the federal government amid Trump’s standoff with Democrats over border wall funding. In mid-February, the Senate approved a massive spending bill for agencies and bipartisan federal lands legislation, both holdovers from 2018.
Ever since, the Senate has considered just three pieces of legislation consequential enough to merit a roll-call vote, and two of those came over Trump and McConnell’s objections.
Democrats and a small group of Republicans used parliamentary tactics to pass resolutions opposing the president’s declaration of emergency powers in building the wall and another to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen.
Trump has vetoed the first resolution and is expected to veto the Yemen resolution if the House signs off on it.
In the past five weeks, the only leadership-backed legislation to receive a vote came on a bill designed to divide Democrats after controversial comments from Virginia Democrats about an abortion bill in the commonwealth’s legislature. It failed on a procedural vote.
With Democrats taking over the House, McConnell lowered expectations for this year’s legislative output and reset his key priority of confirming Trump’s nominees to the federal courts.
“You know what my top priority is, I’ve made it very clear. It’s the judiciary,” McConnell told reporters the day after the midterm elections. He recited the record-setting pace of confirming appellate court judges and two Supreme Court justices.
“We intend to keep confirming as many as we possibly can for as long as we’re in a position to do it,” he said.
Other than that, McConnell predicted that they would work on “something on infrastructure” and would consider Trump’s push for lower costs for prescription drugs.
So far, division runs deep on the focus of an infrastructure bill — mass transit or rural highways — and more so on how to fund it. The Senate Finance Committee has held hearings about prescription drugs, but the chairman, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) described his efforts as still in the “fact-finding” phase.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, is working on legislation that would update higher-education laws, as well as a bill to stabilize health-care costs. Those are, at least, months away from getting committee approval, let alone coming to the full Senate.
It’s unclear whether the Senate or House will consider full budget resolutions, as they must first reach agreement on the broader spending framework.
A 2011 budget law would slash spending by nearly $100 billion next year, and a deal to avert that is not likely until the late summer or fall.
McConnell’s focus on judges will soon run into a problem of his own success: a lack of prominent positions to fill. The appeals court circuits, one step below the Supreme Court, are at the equivalent of full employment — there are just nine vacancies, out of more than 180 posts, and just three do not yet have a nominee in the pipeline.
Within weeks, Republicans will run out of appellate judges to confirm.
Hundreds of district court nominees and other less prominent sub-Cabinet executive branch posts await confirmation. McConnell, the self-described institutionalist, is poised to change the rules to a simple-majority vote, rather than the traditional two-thirds majority, that will speed up Senate procedures for approving those lower-level nominees.
Democrats will charge hypocrisy, after McConnell blasted them for “breaking the rules” in 2013 when they used the same maneuver.
But the result is likely to just turn the Senate into an assembly line for confirming nominees that no one has ever heard of, not the type of moves that drive the political base the way Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh’s confirmation clash last fall boosted turnout in conservative states.
Some GOP strategists are warning that Republicans need a broader agenda on domestic policy issues or else they will remain in the House minority and put their Senate majority in peril next year.
“The ability of House and Senate Republicans to offer a positive agenda that addresses people’s kitchen table priorities, from jobs, wages and now retirement fears to health care concerns, could well be the deciding factor in who controls the next Congress,” David Winston, a Republican pollster who advises congressional GOP leaders, recently wrote.
The Senate’s lethargic kickoff only has one comparison this century, in 2011, when the reverse situation took place. Democrats lost the House in 2010 but held on to the Senate while Barack Obama was in the White House.
Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), then the Senate majority leader, slowed the Senate to a crawl. It only cast 46 votes in the first quarter of the year, well under the brisk pace Reid set to start the previous new Congresses in 2007 and 2009.
Eventually Reid focused on so-called messaging bills, those that were designed to fail but also put GOP senators on the record on issues that might hurt their reelection prospects.
Now, McConnell seems headed in the same direction. He will soon force a vote on the Green New Deal, the emerging proposal from liberal Democrats to combat climate change that has divided their party.
McConnell is hoping this go-slow approach follows Reid’s success, as Democrats gained Senate seats in the 2012 elections as Obama won reelection.