New Senate is just like the old Senate

Updated 11:53 AM EDT, Sat March 21, 2015
(CNN) —  

Governing is much tougher than it looks, even for a master of the Senate like Mitch McConnell.

Claiming the majority he had long craved in the mid-term elections, the wily GOP leader promised to turn the polarized, gridlocked Senate back into a chamber in which both sides get a say and pass meaningful legislation.

McConnell’s vow was not just altruistic. With a tough slate of Senate races looming in 2016 and Republicans desperate to take back the White House, he has a strong incentive to show the GOP can govern.

But two months into the Republican majority, the new Senate looks an awful lot like the old Senate.

The chamber can’t even come together to pass a bill tackling the scourge of sex trafficking – which has wide bipartisan support – because it has become derailed in a partisan fight over abortion. The result is that President Barack Obama’s nominee for attorney general, Loretta Lynch, is being held up. If things were not bad enough, Lynch’s confirmation process has degenerated into an ugly row over race.

’Partisan political points’

“If we cannot approve a bill to deal with human trafficking, then what will we be able to deal with?” Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins said this week. “We have to get past the tendency to score partisan political points that has affected too many bills on both sides of the aisle.”

The new Senate is not yet breaking its bad productivity streak.

The only high profile legislation sent to Obama’s desk was a bill authorizing the Keystone XL Pipeline, which the president swiftly vetoed.

READ: Eric Holder: Attorney General for life?

The Republican establishment in the House and Senate has spent much of its time having to quell a bid by grassroots conservatives to defund the Department of Homeland Security as a way to punish what they see as Obama’s “executive amnesty” in reshaping immigration laws.

The GOP-led Senate and House are also at odds over exactly what to include in the biggest piece of looming business the party majorities will face – a budget bill.

This is all welcome news for Obama, who was dealt a humiliating defeat in November’s mid-terms but is not facing much pressure from Congress at all. He’s using the political vacuum as a respite from the misery lame-duck presidents usually expect in their twilight years.

GOP civil war

The raging Republican civil war, meanwhile, is making McConnell’s task in managing his restive conference almost as difficult as the one John Boehner has slogged through in recent years.

And Boehner, unlike McConnell, does not have to deal with at least three Republicans – Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham – who are flirting with running for president, and who may have personal, rather than party motivations at stake.

“The election changed majority control – it didn’t change the sharp differences between the two parties,” said Steven Smith, a specialist in Congress at Washington University, St. Louis. “It didn’t change McConnell’s relationship with his own colleagues.”

READ: Democrats refuse to take back charges of racism over Lynch nom

Still, McConnell’s defenders say that he has managed to make at least peripheral changes to Senate life. He has allowed more amendments to legislation than was typically allowed under the former Democratic majority rule of Harry Reid, letting lawmakers feel their voices are heard.

In the DHS battle, McConnell honored his vow not to allow a government shutdown, though that promise will be tested in government funding and debt ceiling fights later this year.

And even in the best of times, nothing moves in the Senate at anything other than glacial pace. So McConnell’s quest to restore “regular order” might be the political equivalent of turning around an oil tanker.

Prospects look reasonable that by using a budget device known as “reconciliation,” which can bypass the Senate filibuster, the GOP will be able to move some legislation through Congress and evade Democratic obstruction.

But many Republicans believe that Democrats, by suddenly objecting to the abortion provision after it sailed through committee, are simply looking for a way to jam up the Senate in the belief Republicans will get the blame for the futility. Their current strategy is, in effect, a 2016 strategy.

With the chamber’s filibuster rules, which require a 60 vote majority on most significant legislation, the current Republican high water mark of 54 seats is not sufficient to dictate terms to the opposition party.

Eye on 2016

Already, with an apparent eye on 2016, senior Democrats are making the case that Republicans simply can’t get things done.

“Republicans have came in saying they would know how to govern, and what a mess they’ve made of it,” said veteran Democratic Sen Chuck Schumer of New York. “They didn’t have a good time or good luck on the pipeline bill, where they got bollocksed up on climate change. They’ve held us for four weeks on funding Homeland Security. And now even a simple trafficking bill they can’t get done.”

He added: “Hello, our Republican friends, you’re in the majority. They still think they’re in the minority and they’re putting their own poison pills in their own bill.”

READ: Congress fails to do its homework (again)

The shenanigans have some veteran observers of the Senate already beginning to downgrade expectations for the next few years.

“What’s clear is that the quick cement is rapidly drying on how the new Senate is going to operate,” said Ron Bonjean, a former top Republican strategist in the Senate and the House.

Bonjean predicted a return to the grueling “trench warfare” which has made the Senate one of the most trying places to be in Washington.

“Democrats don’t want to move anything. They are finding reasons not to join Republicans in moving legislation because that will help the majority succeed politically,” said Bonjean.

The row over the trafficking bill is a bad omen for those who want to see a return to comity in the Senate. An attempt at a compromise failed on Thursday so the controversy will rumble on at least until next week.

And the clash has become much more than a dispute over an obscure bill. It’s a test case of how the Senate will be run for the next two years, being waved by two veteran experts of gridlock and procedure, McConnell and Reid who have seen their relationship deteriorate badly in recent years.

McConnell is refusing to bring up Lynch’s nomination, which has the support of a number of Republicans as well as Democrats, until the trafficking bill passes.

But in the end, some conservatives believe, the Democrats will have little option to climb down, because the White House badly wants Lynch to get confirmed to succeed Eric Holder.

Too late

But by then, it may be too late to stop ill feelings over the nomination from poisoning whatever goodwill is left in the Senate, setting a bad precedent for the rest of the year.

For example, Sen. John McCain on Thursday furiously condemned another Senate veteran, Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, after he accused Republicans of treating Lynch, who is African American, like civil rights icon Rosa Parks by moving her “to the back of the bus.”

McConnell doesn’t just have problems with Democrats though. He increasingly is struggling to keep his own caucus in line, especially among lawmakers who have ridden the Tea Party wave and are challenging the Republican establishment in the Senate.

In one eye-opening example, Republican freshman Sen. Tom Cotton bypassed Senate leadership by getting together a letter signed by 46 other GOP senators to warn Iran directly that Congress could torpedo a nuclear deal between world powers, including Washington, and the Islamic Republic.

Grass roots conservatives are also furious that Boehner and McConnell combined to derail a bid by conservatives to withhold funding for the DHS in protest at Obama’s unilateral effort to save millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation.

“They organized a surrender. it was the surrender brigade,” said Ken Cuccinelli, President of the Senate Conservatives Fund, a political action committee devoted to sending candidates supported by the grassroots to the Senate. McConnell “misled Kentucky voters. He said he was going to stand up to Obama’s liberal agenda. He said he was going to use the power of the purse. he said he was going to repeal Obamacare root and branch.”

Cuccinelli, the former Attorney General of Virginia, predicted that the action of the Senate Republican establishment would not be accepted by Republican activists and could fuel primary campaigns against sitting senators up for re-election, including McCain, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, and North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr.

So under simultaneous attack from the right and the left, and with the president ready with his veto, McConnell is going to have to negotiate an increasingly narrow path before he can send his troops into the field in the 2016 election and argue that, unlike Democrats, the GOP actually got something done.

Ted Barrett and Deidre Walsh contributed to this report.