Santa Fe New Mexican
Controlling Senate, GOP stalls on legislation
WASHINGTON — Seven months into a new era of divided government, the Republican-led Senate limped out of Washington last week after the fewest legislative debates of any in recent memory, without floor votes on issues that both parties view as urgent: the high cost of prescription drugs, a broken immigration system and crumbling infrastructure.
The number of Senate roll call votes on amendments — a key indicator of whether lawmakers are engaged in free and open debate — plummeted to only 18 this year, according to a review of congressional data. During the same time period in the 10 previous Congresses, senators took anywhere from 34 to 231 amendment votes.
The inaction stands in stark contrast to the promises of Sen. Mitch McConnell, the majority leader. After his party took control of the Senate in 2015, McConnell vowed to end the gridlock that had gripped the chamber under his Democratic predecessor, Harry Reid, and pledged to allow both parties to offer amendments to legislation — even if it forced Republicans to risk taking politically unpopular votes.
“We’ll just take our chances,” he said at a news conference in early 2016. “You know, we’re big men and women. We’re prepared to vote on proposals that are offered from both sides.”
Instead, the Senate, once known as “the world’s greatest deliberative body,” is operating exactly as McConnell now wants it to: as an approval factory for President Donald Trump’s judicial and administration nominees.
In his effort to remake the courts, McConnell is succeeding; so far this year, the Senate has confirmed 13 circuit court nominees, for a total of 43 since Trump took office in 2017, and 46 of his district court nominees, for a total of 99. By contrast, during the last two years of President Barack Obama’s administration, with Republicans running the Senate, only 22 judicial nominees were confirmed.
Dysfunction in Washington, of course, is nothing new, and it is especially pronounced when the House and Senate are controlled by opposing parties. This year has been worse than most. It started off with a government shutdown that did not get resolved until three weeks into the new Congress.
In an analysis of the first six months of the new Congress, the Bipartisan Policy Center found fault with leaders in both parties for “not engaging in the kind of deliberation and debate that is necessary to develop quality bills.”
The Senate’s legislative achievements have been confined largely to noncontroversial bipartisan measures — including a land conservation package and a bill cracking down on illegal telemarketing — and must-pass bills, including disaster relief and emergency aid for the border; an annual military policy measure; and a two-year budget deal lawmakers approved just before they left.
But the budget deal, the product of negotiations between Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, passed over the objections of roughly half the Senate Republicans. Lawmakers had little say in its content, and McConnell permitted debate on just one amendment, offered by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., that would have cut spending and required a balanced budget.
McConnell declined to be interviewed. But in a speech on the Senate floor in recent days, he blamed Democrats for creating delays and clogging up the Senate calendar by insisting on cloture votes — procedural votes that determine whether to cut off debate and proceed to a final vote — for most nominations.
But the Senate’s legislative record on domestic issues has been so thin that a number of Republicans were left grasping for words when asked to name the chamber’s most significant legislative achievement this year.