The greatest deliberative body in Congress is confirming a lot of nominations and not much else, and it is wearing on some members of the Republican conference.
Internally, rank-and-file members are quietly lamenting the loss of their legislative power – a symptom of both the divided government they are now in and what some say is a lack of ambition by members and leadership to wade into contentious territory ahead of the 2020 election.
“I’m not sure what our legislative agenda is right now. I’m not sure what it consists of,” said one Republican senator who asked to speak on background to voice their frustration about the state of affairs. “There is a sense that because Democrats control the House and Republicans control the Senate … what’s the point? Why bother?”
Heading into the 2020 election, the senators said that their party had grown skittish to try to legislate much of anything for fear it could result in backlash.
“There is also a sense that there are a lot of senators up for reelection in 2020,” the member said. “They don’t necessarily want to cast votes just for the sake of casting votes possibly leaving senators in a more vulnerable position, but it begs the question: which makes us more vulnerable, inacation or action?”
The Senate is confirming Trump administration nominees faster than ever thanks to a rules change in April that cut down the time it took to confirm the President’s sub-Cabinet and district court picks.
But, some argue that’s the bare minimum job of the US Senate, not a vision for the country. Sen. John Kennedy, a folksy, Louisiana Republican, grew so irritated with the slow-down in legislation that he tried to raise it at a recent Republican lunch but he wasn’t given time to discuss it, according to another Republican Senator familiar with the incident. Hours later, Kennedy went to the floor and delivered an address without prepared remarks.
“What I am about to say, I intend to say gently and constructively. And that is this. We need to do more. We need to do more. By we, I mean the United States Congress. We have completed almost 25% of the time allotted to this current Congress and what have we done other than nominations,” Kennedy said. “We have done nothing. Zero. Zilch. Nada.”
Republicans are sober to their political predicament. Yes, many say, they’d like to be doing more. There’s infrastructure, lowering prescription drug costs, a crisis on the southern border and a trade war that’s wearing on farmers back home. But – in an era when even passing a disaster aid bill takes months of tedious negotiations, failed attempts and starts and stops – legislating in divided government has screeched almost to a halt.
“The question is could we do more? Yes. With cooperation we could do more,” said Sen. Richard Burr, a Republican from North Carolina, who celebrated the Senate’s impact on the courts over the last two years. “But, if the choice is take seven days and pass a bill or pass eight judges, I’d probably just pass eight judges.”
There are issues that can’t be ignored. By the fall, the Senate will have to work with the House to raise the US debt limit. And, leadership in both parties are already sitting down to negotiate a new, two-year budget deal that would fund the government and block automatic cuts from going into effect come October. But, the big, sweeping legislative efforts that consumed the House and Senate over the last two years like tax cuts, health care and criminal justice reform are in the rearview mirror for the moment even as some Senators argue that there are smaller bills that will get time on the floor this year.
“It’s frustrating, but I am not sure what we can do about it other than take back the House one day,” said Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio. “We will pass bills, but in terms of major pieces of legislation, the kind you spend two weeks working on, that’s a lot harder right now.”
In the House, Democratic investigations into the President, his Cabinet and his policies have cast doubt into whether the Trump administration will even be willing to work with Democrats on some of the legislative agenda items they once agreed on. The President walked out of an infrastructure meeting on Wednesday, telling Democrats that he wouldn’t negotiate a $2 trillion infrastructure plan until House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stopped the probes.
“I told Senator Schumer and Speaker Pelosi, ‘I want to do infrastructure. I want to do it more than you want to do it. I’d be really good at that. That’s what I do. But you know what? You can’t do it under these circumstances. So, get these phony investigations over with,’” Trump said following the meeting.
The fate of an infrastructure deal was already in doubt in the US Senate where Republicans and Democrats are divided over how to pay for such a plan even if they agree on fixing roads, bridges, and broadband across the country. But, the incident illustrated just how quickly even the rare-bipartisan moment could be dashed in divided government.
“I’d love for us to be working on legislative matters,” said Sen. Jerry Moran, a Republican from Kansas. “Nominations are important, but so is legislation. But, it is hard to find many things for which there is bipartisan support around here and certainly things that get 60 votes are hard to come by.”
Republicans argue that until the Democrats moderate on issues they can agree on, nominations may be the best and only good use of their time.
“I don’t get tired of doing nominations,” said Sen. Tim Scott, a Republican from South Carolina. “Listen, the House has to learn to throw some stuff over here that we can actually vote on that makes sense.”