Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's Senate is on a roll — and he wants to make sure it stays that way.
After reviving Trade Promotion Authority, the Kentucky Republican opted to move next to a bipartisan rewrite of the No Child Left Behind education law in a bid to maintain the chamber's legislative momentum.
Shortly before the July Fourth recess, Republican Conference Chairman John Thune led a victory lap, joining fellow chairmen to highlight the policy achievements of the first six months of the new GOP majority in getting a budget resolution through and advancing the trade package and other policy priorities while allowing a far more open amendment process.
Thune told CQ Roll Call he knew the test for the July work period would be to balance the frustration over the Democrats' blockade of spending bills with other business.
"We're going to be have to be able to multitask. You know, I think if we put approps bills up, they block them. ... If we get on like ESEA reauthorization or cyber or something like that, I think there are going to have to be multiple things probably happening at the same time," Thune said. "At this point, it looks like they're going to try and block all approps bills, which again, I think is a big mistake, but ... hopefully that won't carry over to some of the other things that we're going to do which we know there's bipartisan support for."
McConnell Tees Up Consideration of NCLB Overhaul Bill
Thune suggested that whenever McConnell opts to put another appropriations test vote forward, it would likely be on taking up the Military Construction-Veterans Affairs bill.
"Those are not good bills to be standing in the way of, and basically what they're saying is that, 'We're going to hold spending for our national security interests and for our troops hostage because we want more money for the EPA and the IRS,'" Thune said. "We want to operate within the budget caps."
Starting the education debate right after recess means Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., will be running point on the floor with ranking Democrat Patty Murray of Washington. Both senators are experienced workhorses with the confidence of party leaders.
"I'm looking forward to that. Sen. Murray and I are ready," Alexander told CQ Roll Call. "The remarkable consensus we have around this bill comes from the fact that we're seven years overdue and everybody wants it fixed. So, we have an unusual coalition of governors, superintendents, chief state school officers, legislators and teachers unions — all in support of our bill, even though none of them think it's perfect."
Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin concurred with Alexander, though the Illinois Democrat said even the education rewrite could be poisoned with an amendment from Sen. Richard M. Burr, R-N.C., about funding formulas.
"I believe it'll be strongly bipartisan coming to the floor. There are amendments that have been proposed that can divide that coalition in a hurry. Burr's amendment is one for example that I am actively going to oppose and I said to Lamar Alexander don't count on my support for this bill if it's included," Durbin said.
McConnell could have set up a doomed vote to limit debate on taking up another appropriations bill, and Alexander knows that world as well. His Energy-Water spending bill is among those stuck in line in a dispute over spending levels.
"I think you just have to have patience and keep working," Alexander said.
Democrats dismiss the GOP's statistics on productivity and point to the fact many of the amendment votes came on the ill-fated bill to approve the Keystone XL pipeline that President Barack Obama ultimately vetoed. In addition, McConnell's been unafraid to use the procedural tools available to the majority leader, including filling the amendment tree to preclude the offering of amendments.
Ironically, the Democratic spending blockade could actually free up the Senate agenda for a substantial legislative sprint to August, with a cybersecurity bill from the Intelligence Committee potentially coming to the floor, as well as a must-pass bill to continue funding for federal highways, which is sure to attract attention from would-be hitchhikers such as a revival of the Export-Import Bank authorization. McConnell has already indicated he'll give senators a chance to add the bank to that bill.
"Looks to me like they have the votes, and I'm going to give them the opportunity," McConnell told The Associated Press .
Advocates for the credit agency on the Democratic side have not hid their frustration with the process, including North Dakota Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp. She is the lead co-sponsor on her side of the aisle on an Ex-Im reauthorization introduced by GOP Sen. Mark S. Kirk of Illinois.
"This is policy that is so frustrating. It's frustrating for us because you will hear the statement, 'Well, we'll get around to it.' Really? You'll get around to it? In the meantime, you have allowed unnecessary disruption in the lives of not only the people who work at the Ex-Im Bank, but the people who rely on the Ex-Im Bank," Heitkamp said before leaving Washington.
Two other items could take up some floor time as well: a legislative reaction to a possible Iran nuclear deal and a possible conference report on the National Defense Authorization Act.
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