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Tariff Threats Aside, the Senate Is Where Action Goes to Die

WASHINGTON — Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana reached into his seemingly bottomless well of folksy barbs on Tuesday and said, “There’s a reason that the American people think that members of Congress were born tired and raised lazy.”

The next day, the Senate left for D-Day celebrations after a three-day workweek in which nothing passed, three minor administration posts were filled and the only votes that came were on motions to end debate. Meantime, the logjam of unaddressed legislation piled higher.

Seemingly by design, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader and self-proclaimed “grim reaper” of Washington, has turned his chamber into a legislative graveyard, opting instead to devote the Senate floor almost exclusively to confirming conservative judicial nominations and Trump administration appointees.

So if this week’s Republican threats against President Trump’s promised Mexico tariffs actually turn into a legislative rebuff, it would be major break from the past six months. Barely a dozen roll-call votes have been held this year on bills, amendments and legislation, and around 20 bills have been signed into law since January.

“What legislation?” snorted Senator Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin, when asked last month about the chamber’s legislative accomplishments.

Several Republicans point to the previous Democratic Senate, when Harry Reid, the majority leader at the time, refused to take up most of the bills passed by the Republican House. And Mr. McConnell’s allies argue that with Mr. Trump’s signature on the disaster relief package, the 116th Congress has seen more bills become law than Mr. Reid did in the same time period.

Senators have made statements and taken a few messaging votes. A pair of rebukes of presidential power, against Mr. Trump’s national emergency declaration and against American military assistance to Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, were swiftly vetoed, and the senators who spoke big on the need to reassert Congress’s authority against an overreaching executive could not muster the votes to override him.

This time around, for all of their blunt objections to the proposed tariffs on Mexican products, Republican senators have already grown reluctant to commit to actually voting to disapprove them, optimistic, they say, that the tariffs will not be implemented. Senator Joni Ernst, Republican of Iowa and a member of leadership, spoke against the tariffs this week but then refused to say whether the Senate should actually block them, as did other members of the Republican conference.

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“There’s a reason that the American people think that members of Congress were born tired and raised lazy,” said Senator John Kennedy, Republican of Louisiana.CreditErin Schaff/The New York Times

The tactic, while ideal for frustrating the ambitions of the new Democratic majority in the House and furthering a conservative slant on the courts, has begun to irritate even Republicans eager to take votes on items other than procedural rules and nominees, and who have introduced bills addressing bipartisan issues, such as election security and prescription drug pricing, only to see them go nowhere. The landmark Violence Against Women Act remains expired. The Higher Education Act awaits action.

Senator James Lankford, Republican of Oklahoma, agreed in an interview that “it is a more of a challenge” even to “get common agreement on simple things.”

Mr. Kennedy, asked if he still believed that his colleagues in the Senate needed to get off their “ice-cold butts,” offered a correction: “Ice-cold lazy butts,” he said, the exact phrase he used last month to disparage the lack of legislative action.

Senate Democrats, watching their House counterparts celebrate the passage of bill after bill, have devoted hours to lambasting the senatorial “legislative graveyard.” Senator Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, vented that Mr. McConnell had “effectively turned the United States Senate into a very expensive lunch club that occasionally votes on a judge or two.”

To be sure, many of the bills passed by the House were never going to be taken up in a Republican-controlled Senate. Gun-control measures, even one patterned after a bipartisan background check co-written by Senator Patrick J. Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania, had no chance. Nor did measures to shore up the Affordable Care Act, extend legal protections to lesbian, gay and transgender people, and offer a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children. House Democrats have used the same argument — such bills are just political messaging — to dismiss a Senate-passed bill, with language that affirms the right of local and state governments to break ties with companies that boycott or divest from Israel.

But some of the House-passed bills reflect measures drafted by Senate Republicans, such as Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Susan Collins of Maine. Other bills, even immigration bills, could be answered with conservative versions in the hope of spurring a House-Senate negotiating conference.

“I want the opportunity to vote on legislation, especially good bipartisan legislation,” said Senator Tammy Duckworth, Democrat of Illinois, who has only served in the Senate under Mr. McConnell’s leadership. “And I’m not being given the opportunity to do that by the leader.”

Some Republican senators, in the aftermath of a rules change that reduced debate time over nominees, reasoned that Mr. McConnell’s approach to filling vacancies in both the courts and the administration is both appealing to conservative voters and a necessary precursor to initiating a legislative agenda.

“I don’t think their members who go home to campaign want to campaign on the senate being a legislative graveyard,” Senator Chuck Schumer, the minority leader, said in an interview.CreditHilary Swift for The New York Times

“For every piece of legislation we advance, there’s somebody in an agency or a department that we expect to be involved in the implementation,” said Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska. “And if we haven’t confirmed those folks, how do we ever expect to make that progress?”

“All of our good ideas came here to die and Harry Reid stopped short,” said Senator Kevin Cramer, Republican of North Dakota and a former member of the House.

But necessary legislation is coming — a measure to raise statutory spending caps to avert across-the-board cuts otherwise coming in October, another to raise the government’s debt limit, then spending bills to avert another shutdown Oct. 1.

“There are quite a few areas where we have common agreements that they’re currently not moving,” Mr. Lankford said.

The lack of a definitive legislative record could also prove problematic not only for the House Democrats anxious to prove that their majority delivered on substantive promises, but also for vulnerable members of Mr. McConnell’s majority who are already entangled in fierce re-election campaigns.

“I don’t think their members who go home to campaign want to campaign on the Senate being a legislative graveyard,” said Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader.

His incumbent senators will likely face the same questions from voters, and Democrats are hopeful that weaponizing Mr. McConnell’s “grim reaper” label will help them maintain their numbers in the Senate.

Senator Doug Jones, an Alabama Democrat who faces perhaps the steepest climb to re-election, said when he talks to voters “about why it’s not getting done, I talk about the majority leader.”

Senator David Perdue, Republican of Georgia, who also is up for re-election next year, said he points to “Democratic obstructionism” and reminds constituents that there is still hope to come together on a number of priorities, including legislation that would lower the cost of prescription drugs and a bicameral push to counter the country’s affordable housing crisis.

“Divided government is historically when big things happen,” he added. “I’m hopeful.”

Source: NYT

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