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The legislative pace in the Senate has slowed to a crawl, and it looks like it’s about to get even slower.
With the Republican-controlled House sending Senate Democrats one dead-on-arrival bill after another, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has spent the first three months of this Congress clearing the decks of a handful of relatively noncontroversial measures.
But Senate Democrats acknowledge that they could reach the end of the line this week with passage of a small-business bill that has already eaten up two weeks of floor time. And besides a continuing resolution to fund the government past Friday, Democratic aides say it is unclear what will be next on tap.
Sen. Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat who was elected to the Senate in 2008, said the legislative pace this year was “diametrically opposed” to the 111th Congress, and he criticized House Republicans for “making the mistake that [Democrats] were accused of making last Congress, which is not focusing single-mindedly on the economy and jobs.”
House Republican Conference Chairman Jeb Hensarling defended the House GOP’s approach, arguing that it has done a lot to change how business gets done in Washington, D.C.
“Having a culture every week where we actually get rid of programs, to pass a bill for the first time that reduces spending the most since World War II, again, it depends on what your goals are,” the Texas Republican said. “I like what we’re doing; I didn’t like what they were doing.”
A Senate Democratic aide referred to the small-business bill as “the last of those deck-clearing bills” and predicted that Democratic leaders would turn to as-yet-unspecified nominations or “housekeeping” bills to fill floor time the week of April 11 prior to Congress’ two-week spring recess, slated to begin April 15.
Since Republicans took control of the House in January, the two chambers have been operating mostly independently of each other from a legislative standpoint. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has teed up a series of bills on wedge issues such as repealing the Obama administration’s health care law and spending cuts that have no chance of being taken up by the Senate or signed into law by the president.
Reid, meanwhile, has primarily dedicated floor time to passing a handful of bills that he has branded as job-creating measures: a two-year reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration, an overhaul of the nation’s patent laws and the small-business bill.
Last week the House passed its own version of the FAA legislation, setting up a House-Senate conference — but it has yet to tackle the patent overhaul. And with the exception of a few unsuccessful votes on amendments mirroring House-passed bills that GOP Senators have forced, much of the legislation that the House has sent to the Senate has similarly been untouched by the Democratic majority.
Congress has sent President Barack Obama just six bills so far this year — including two continuing resolutions that cut federal spending. All of the bills signed into law this year have been extensions of current programs. That’s a marked contrast to the first three months of the last Congress, when Democrats held significant majorities in both the House and Senate and twice as many bills — including major initiatives such as the stimulus, an omnibus appropriations bill, the State Children’s Health Insurance Program reauthorization and a massive public lands bill — were enacted.
“It’s been treading water, and part of it is because the only way legislatively you’re going to get anything passed is if it has true bipartisan support,” National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) said.
Senators on both sides of the aisle said the debate over how to fund the government through the end of the fiscal year and the looming clash over raising the debt ceiling have poisoned the well for House-Senate negotiations on other legislative items. They suggested that after those issues have been resolved there could be a better chance for cross-Dome compromise.
“Then we sit down and do more regular order and start working on stuff,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said.
The debt limit vote is expected later this spring, and after that, lawmakers could turn their attention to the fiscal 2012 spending bills.
But with Democrats anxious to stave off further GOP gains and retain control of the White House in 2012, political pressures are likely to continue to make any efforts at House-Senate compromise a hard slog.
Majority Whip Dick Durbin called on House Republicans to pass some of the bills that the Senate had sent their way.
“I do believe the House can walk and chew gum — can consider our deficit issue and, at the same time, pass critical legislation,” the Illinois Democrat said.
But many Republicans argue that they are only providing the check on Democrats’ power that voters called for on Nov. 2.
“When the presidency and both the House and Senate are controlled by the same party, naturally you’re going to get more things passed,” Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said. “If you’re from that party, that’s a real good thing. If you’re not, it’s probably a bad thing. The requirement that the two bodies get together generally results in legislation that reflects both their points of view and so that’s a better thing right now.”
Freshman Rep. Trey Gowdy, meanwhile, said he isn’t concerned by the lack of bills that have become law and doesn’t think his constituents will punish him at the ballot box.
“I don’t equate progress to legislation,” the South Carolina Republican said. “My district will not judge me based on the number of bills that become law. They will judge me on the quality of what becomes law.”