Amid Rancor in House, It’s Quiet in the Halls of the Senate. Too Quiet.
WASHINGTON — The House is an impeachment hot zone, leaving the Senate to face a cold, hard truth: Things are looking down in the upper chamber.
Temporarily relegated to the sidelines by the spectacle of impeachment dominating the House, and lulled into inactivity with legislative action at a near standstill, the Senate has become a den of ennui. Senators privately admit to being downright bored.
In marble Senate hallways that echo with emptiness compared with the crowds cramming the corridors outside House meeting rooms, senators and top aides deliver a harsh self-critique, tossing around words like “useless,” “irrelevant” and “waste.” They seem at loose ends as a handful of lawmakers try to hammer out a year-end spending deal in leadership office suites.
Impeachment will be on their doorstep soon enough, but for now, as the final legislative days of the year slip away, there is a dearth of real debate taking place in what is sometimes called the world’s greatest deliberative body.
“There is nothing to do,” lamented Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Senate Democrat who just enlisted for a re-election campaign next year in the hope the institution can get back on track.
It is not just partisan griping from Democrats. Republicans are also impatient as the Senate, under Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, has essentially become a judicial confirmation factory. (Eight more were processed this week, and others are on the way.)
Some Republicans say they are more than ready to make policy instead — or at least in addition.
Over the summer, Senator Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee and a close ally of Mr. McConnell, moved a bipartisan measure that takes aim at surprise medical bills and high prescription drug costs through the health committee he leads. The vote was 20 to 3. He is still waiting to bring the legislation to a vote.
“Senator McConnell has told me in the past that if I have something that I think is bipartisan and important that he will put it on the floor,” Mr. Alexander said. “I would like to see him put this on the floor.”
“I want to legislate,” agreed Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine.
They may end up disappointed. Mr. McConnell has told colleagues there is little chance to do much beyond what he considers the essentials — a spending package, the annual Pentagon policy bill and a new trade pact with Canada and Mexico if it comes over from the House. Other than that it is judges, judges, judges as the Senate runs out the clock on 2019.
But that has not stopped Mr. McConnell from regularly berating Democrats for being so consumed by impeachment that nothing else is getting done.
“Only in this town, only in Washington D.C., does anybody think it’s O.K. for our armed forces to go unfunded and a major trade deal to go unpassed because Democrats are too busy hosting a panel of law professors to criticize President Trump on television,” he said.
Democrats say it is Mr. McConnell who is the problem because he has bottled up scores of measures that have emerged from the Democratic-led House, prompting them to tag the Senate a “legislative graveyard.”
“The grim reaper says all we’re doing is impeachment,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Thursday, referring to Mr. McConnell. “No, we have 275 bipartisan bills on your desk.”
Given his ideological differences with Democrats, Mr. McConnell is unlikely to be in a rush to put House-passed bills on the floor. But he could move ahead on bipartisan measures like the health bill sponsored by Mr. Alexander if he chose to do so.
A Senate leadership aide said that when Mr. McConnell points the finger at Democrats, it is about their focus on impeachment over the overdue spending and Pentagon bills. The aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe Mr. McConnell’s strategy, said that the majority leader was holding off on the health care measure to give Mr. Alexander running room to strike a bipartisan, bicameral deal that would lead to quicker passage rather than a drawn-out debate on the floor.
Republicans say that Mr. McConnell has welcomed Democratic resistance to taking up the spending measures without an overall deal because it has freed him to devote the Senate to his top priority — confirming judges to lifetime federal appointments. Including the eight confirmed this week, the three-year total for the Trump era is now 170 and counting. The majority leader lined up more votes in the coming days on disputed nominees, drawing renewed criticism from Democrats.
“Voting for a series of largely radical, callow nominees is not what the country needs or what satisfies the vast majority of senators who came to Washington to legislate,” said Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader.
The intense focus on nominations is evident in new figures compiled by Senate Democrats, who said that in 2019, there were 287 votes in the chamber related to nominations, compared with 98 regarding legislation. (Republicans blame Democrats for forcing excessive procedural votes on nominees.) Democrats also counted 70 days with votes related only to nominations, 29 days with votes strictly on legislation, and 19 days with votes on both legislation and nominations.
The focus on nominations has yielded a Republican overhaul of the federal courts, but it robs lawmakers of both parties of the chance to shape legislation through amendments and floor consideration. And while the scarcity of legislative fights has its advantages — senators are not being forced to cast politically risky votes — it also deprives them of the opportunity for a give-and-take over policy, something senators formerly took pride in.
“There is a sense we are not doing as much as we could, we are not getting the sense of satisfaction and accomplishment, ” said Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island. “That was never every day. It took a while, but we got something done.”
With the Senate slowed to a crawl, lawmakers heard a plea this week from Senator Johnny Isakson, the popular Georgia Republican who is retiring at the end of the year because of health reasons, to try to come together.
“Being bipartisan doesn’t mean a Democrat and Republican talk to each other every once in a while,” he said in a floor speech attended by senators from both parties. “It means this: Two people come together who probably have differences — probably have a lot of differences — but they find a way to get to the end of the trail, where there is the possibility of a solution, and then they do the things they have to do to get to that solution. America today is built on people who found a way to get to that end of the solution.”
Despite the warm applause for Mr. Isakson and his sentiments, it was clear that his colleagues would not quickly fulfill those expectations.
“There just doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of bipartisan cooperation right now,” said Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas.
Hope springs eternal among lawmakers that the Senate could regain its former distinction as an active legislative body. They just don’t know when.
“I have this sense,” said Mr. Alexander, who is retiring at the end of 2020, “that there is going to be a collective feeling around here — and I’m not sure when it will come — that there is more life to judges and impeachment.”
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