It’s as if the summer turned into the perfect storm against the best-laid plans of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Soon after Memorial Day, McConnell (R-Ky.) drew up a game plan around approving a rewrite of the Affordable Care Act by the end of June. The benefits were twofold, providing House Republicans a few weeks to approve the Senate version and send it to President Trump.
Also, McConnell wanted to create separation between the conclusion of the health-care debate and the start of the annual August recess, providing the month of July to rack up victories on other legislative matters. Such wins would give some Senate Republicans, wary of tackling the health-care issue back home, something else to tout with their voters.
Instead, everything got consumed by the health-care storm, which culminated in the bill failing by a single vote last week. The Senate plans to leave town Thursday for a five-week break with no major legislative accomplishments to show for the first seven months of unified Republican control of Congress and the White House.
When they return after Labor Day, Republicans have to tackle several must-pass bills to fund federal agencies and to increase the Treasury’s borrowing authority. Those are perfunctory tasks, but without the proper tending, failure would result in government shutdowns or worse.
That leaves October, maybe, for the point to legislative offense, particularly on the bid to overhaul the tax code.
“We’re, you know, a little behind. We’ve got some things to tidy up and take care of in September,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said Wednesday, acknowledging the disappointment. “My guess is we’ll be well on the way to tax reform in October.”
This is the scenario McConnell was trying to avoid back in early June. Everyone wanted to avoid a replay of August 2009 when Democrats were in control and could not finish approving the ACA before the summer break.
They faced a tsunami of opposition in their town halls, and while they did finally approve the legislation, in March 2010, it devoured much of President Obama’s political capital.
Now, Republicans face a different problem, their own unique brand: liberals still angry at their effort to repeal Obamacare and conservatives fuming at their inability to deliver on a core seven-year promise to repeal the health-care law.
In mid-July, McConnell told reporters that he would tell Kentucky voters that the GOP majority delivered Supreme Court Justice Neil M. Gorsuch and eliminated 14 regulations imposed during the Obama era. Then he said Republicans should be judged for the totality of 2017 and 2018 by voters heading into the November 2018 elections.
“Last time I looked, Congress goes on for two years,” he said.
For certain, Congress is more efficient than the public ever realizes. Many pieces of legislation get cleared by unanimous votes, such as this week’s bill designed to improve health care for veterans. Hard work and detailed negotiations go into those bills, which never receive the attention they deserve from the conflict-driven media in Washington.
But by every possible measure, the Senate has been a shell of its former legislative self this year. Weeks have passed by without any legislative proposals on the floor for consideration.
Most of the Senate’s output consisted of approving Trump’s nominations and the regulatory repeals, both of which required a simple majority on roll calls and little to no input from Democrats.
In terms of the normal wheeling and dealing, with debates and votes and finally legislation, the Senate has approved fewer than 10 bills this year that required a roll call.
Last week’s 98-to-2 vote imposing sanctions against Russia is the legislative highlight of the year, a bill the president did not even support but was forced into signing.
Another bill gave the Government Accountability Office a bit more investigative authority. Another granted a waiver allowing Jim Mattis to become secretary of defense despite retiring from active military service in 2013.
Another piece of legislation passed by the Senate, on a roll-call vote of 82 to 15, allowed for a historic steamboat, the Delta Queen, to be relocated to St. Louis.
The other legislative votes came on noncontroversial matters such as keeping federal agencies funded and honoring the 50th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem.
Some Republicans suggest that Trump’s lack of experience has left it hard to coordinate and move legislation. This is, said Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), “a unique administration that really a lot of people didn’t think would win. So this is a time frame that you can’t really fairly measure against previous senators or governors who have been in the Oval Office.”
Republicans have complained that Democratic stalling on Trump’s nominees has stolen time from their ability to do other things. Yet, like this past week, when they have had time for legislation, Republicans produced bills such as reapproving fees on pharmaceutical companies overseen by the Food and Drug Administration.
This has left Democrats — who began the year fearful because 10 members of their caucus face reelection next year in states Trump won in 2016 — largely relegated to the sidelines. Their incumbents have felt no pressure to support McConnell’s initiatives, which were drawn up to be Republican-only affairs from the outset.
Gardner, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said he remains “very confident” about the GOP’s chances because Democrats are defending so many seats in conservative-leaning states.
Some senior Republicans say they believe that last week’s failed vote on repealing portions of the ACA will allow senators to let conservatives know in their states where they stood.
“This is not just what I tell you I would’ve done, but this is what I did do,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of McConnell’s leadership team. “Going home with those votes, even though unsuccessful, their vote counted and they were able to take it.”
Others have grown philosophical about the repeated failure, hopeful that the direction can change sometime soon.
“We are where we are,” Corker said, promising to be “very frank and direct” with Tennessee voters this month. “I’ll be sure and explain as to why we are where we are.”