Mitch McConnell

Democratic Party leaders are attacking Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as a steward of the “legislative graveyard." | Mark Wilson/Getty Images

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Republicans whistle past the ‘legislative graveyard’

The Senate standstill is frustrating even some in the GOP.

The Senate is going to get back to good old-fashioned legislating any day now. Republicans swear it.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s Senate has been almost entirely focused on confirming President Donald Trump’s personnel and judges and has had little in the way of recent legislative victories.

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“It is frustrating,” Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), a top Democratic target in 2020, said of the Senate standstill. “But we are still working on a number of really good bills.”

The paltry list of accomplishments has given Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer an opening to portray the GOP as devoid of any agenda and could endanger Republicans at risk in a tough election cycle. And there’s a growing recognition within the GOP that it needs to do more.

McConnell and his deputy, Majority Whip John Thune of South Dakota, are telling committee chairmen to start approving bills and get them ready for the floor, according to Republican senators. Some lawmakers are optimistic that by August, they will have passed a bill lowering health care costs along with defense policy legislation. Approval of a new North American trade deal this year is also a possibility, as is a bipartisan deal to lift stiff budget caps.

“It will definitely change soon,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who Democrats are eager to challenge next year. “I like policy and legislation. So, that’s my preference. But I certainly understand that due to the obstructionist tactics, regrettably, we had a huge backlog that we had to clear out.”

“Seeing is believing,” Schumer said in an interview. “Did you see what’s on the floor [this] week? More nominations.”

Not one Republican senator interviewed for this story criticized McConnell. In fact, most blamed Democrats for the slow legislative roll. Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, the No. 3 Senate Republican, said "Sen. Schumer is the problem, not the solution to the problem.”

That doesn't mean there hasn't been some private and public grousing in the Republican Caucus. In speaking about Schumer’s campaign to tag the Senate as the “legislative graveyard,” one senator said, “He’s got a point.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) wisecracked in an interview that the chamber will turn to legislation “when we’ve run out of nominations to consider.” Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, a vulnerable GOP incumbent running for reelection next year, is leaning on McConnell to schedule more votes.

Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) recently publicly said Congress has gotten “zilch” done. Shortly after, the Senate took a floor vote on a measure to ban robocalls that probably could have passed by voice vote. GOP leaders, however, were eager to show they were legislating.

“We ought to be less risk-averse. And I don’t think I’m the only one who believes that. I just think I’m just the only one foolish enough to say that,” Kennedy said. “Every time I talk about this, some knucklehead tries to spin it as a criticism of Mitch, and it’s really not.”

Amid the GOP frustration, Democrats sense an opportunity.

Party leaders are eager to get voters focused on Senate races amid a presidential contest sucking up most of the oxygen. So they're attacking McConnell as steward of the “legislative graveyard,” a strategy devised by Schumer and Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), a member of leadership.

“People don't understand that if the Senate does not become a Democratic majority we will see Sen. McConnell do the same thing, just stopping everything,” Stabenow said. She insisted a Democratic majority would be more open to wide-ranging debates on tough issues.

Schumer “couldn’t hold back our members if he tried,” she said. “Every single one of our members that is a ranking member right now is just chomping at the bit so they can chair a committee.”

It’s always easier to make that case from the minority, just as McConnell did in 2014. While it’s difficult to pass bills in divided government or overcome the chamber’s 60-vote threshold, this Senate’s single-minded focus on nominations is unusual.

Schumer has already shown interest in pushing an aggressive legislative agenda; six years ago, he worked closely with then-Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill, attempt to curb gun violence, and pressure Republicans with doomed votes to raise the minimum wage and promote gender pay equity.

McConnell allies highlight that the Senate, under Reid June 2013, had 13 bills signed into law that year, compared with 20 signed since this session began.

McConnell believes that confirming conservative judges to lifetime seats is the most effective way to make change while Democrats hold the House — doing so requires no bipartisan cooperation and has lasting consequences. He relishes the role of blocking Democratic priorities, dubbing himself the “grim reaper” of progressive legislation as he runs for reelection.

In response to a New York Times article about the Senate's extraordinary focus on nominees, McConnell’s political account tweeted: “I’m Mitch McConnell and I approve this message.”

The Senate’s nominee push has accelerated after Republicans triggered the “nuclear option” in April to slash debate time for lower-level executive and judicial nominees. Republicans argued the change was necessary because of Democratic stall tactics. The rules change has sped up the confirmation process with the Senate confirming 45 nominees during one 21-day period.

Yet senators still grow restless.

Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) acknowledged the dissatisfaction with the lethargic legislative pace but said, "There’s not much you can do about it when the Democrats make us take all this time to vote on noncontroversial judges and Cabinet people.”

Others said it's time to switch gears. Gardner said he had encouraged McConnell “to vote on more things, to have more debates."

“I appreciate the fact that we have to do the personnel side of the business,” Murkowski said. “But as one that wants to get to the policy, I’d like us to be moving on some of these pieces of legislation.”

The Senate has notched a handful of legislative successes. It passed a foreign policy bill that the House has refused to take up, a large public lands package, and, after lengthy delays, bills funding the government and providing disaster relief.

But the Senate has taken just seven votes on amendments this year with no open amendment process, which has become rare under both Democratic and Republican majorities. So even as both parties eye legislation to reduce health care costs and prescription drug prices and raise the tobacco purchasing age, skepticism abounds.

“If they do a bill filled with small health care fixes, all they are doing is stabbing you in a leg with one arm and then putting a tiny Band-Aid on your other arm,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said. “If there was an amendment process, that’s a different animal. I just find it hard to believe [that will happen].”

Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who lead the health care committee, are optimistic their legislation to lower health costs will move through committee this month and on to the floor in July. But GOP Senate leaders aren’t making any promises.

“If they can find bipartisan legislation that we think can get 60 [votes] on the floor, we’re ready to go,” Thune said. “You have to keep expectations realistic. This is a time of divided government, and the House and Senate are pretty far apart on most of the major issues.”

Schumer has concentrated his attacks on Senate GOP leaders for ignoring the growing pile of bills passed by the Democratic House and abandoning Republicans’ own legislation.

“People want things to get done,” Schumer said. “People are starting to talk all around about the legislative graveyard run by Sen. McConnell.”

Asked about Schumer's messaging campaign, Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), a top Schumer target in 2020, responded: "OK, whatever."

“I don’t listen to much of what that Chuck Schumer says," she said. “We get to set our agenda.”

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