Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's best-laid plans for a Senate renaissance have so far fallen flat — and the gridlock is starting to wear on his conference.
Republican Mark S. Kirk of Illinois, who faces a serious re-election challenge in 2016 , says his own conference shoulders responsibility for the lack of productivity.
Kirk spoke with reporters in the Capitol Tuesday, not long after a vote to limit debate on what had started as a bipartisan bill to combat sex trafficking fell a few votes short of the 60 needed amid an ongoing dispute over the GOP's insertion of an anti-abortion funding provision. "My wish is that we hadn't junked that bill up with abortion politics," Kirk said. "Let's just stand for the principle that we are all against slavery and keep the bill clean of extraneous provisions, and that applies to [Department of Homeland Security] appropriations, too."
That was a reference to the ultimately failed effort by Republicans to tie a blockade of funding for President Barack Obama's executive actions on immigration to funding for the DHS.
Kirk said the GOP majority should act "as a governing party, always keep bills focused on their main purpose, not link them to the hot social issues of our time."
The big "victory" for the GOP in the first quarter was the approval of the Keystone XL pipeline — but that bill's already been vetoed.
It could get worse before it gets better, with both parties claiming political victories even as the trafficking bill languished, and McConnell announcing plans for more procedural votes while Attorney General nominee Loretta Lynch remains in limbo — effectively a pawn in the larger power play.
Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., was among the senators who appeared with McConnell at his weekly media availability.
"My first two years in the United States Senate were so frustrating because we never had the opportunity to really have anything of substance come up that we could amend and debate," Fischer said. "So, I was very pleased when we started this year and our conference under the leader's guidance opened up the process to what it was supposed to be, and now we hit this snag and we are back, I think, to blatant partisanship."
By the time Fischer spoke, the National Republican Senatorial Committee already had launched robo-calls against Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and fellow Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, who was chairman of his party's campaign committee last cycle. Both are up for re-election in 2016.
"Call Sen. Reid today ... and tell him to stop playing political games with women and children who have been victimized by human traffickers," the recording against the Democratic leader said.
But Senate Democrats have remained mostly unified, and No. 3 Democratic Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York has said there's already a political narrative developing.
"They still think they're in the minority. Hey Republicans, you won the election, it's time to start governing," he said.
"Hard-right Republicans just can't seem to help themselves, whether it's trying to shut down DHS or sadly trying to play to their base on choice issues, even if it means a human trafficking bill can't get done," Schumer said. "Who would have thought they can't even get a human trafficking bill with bipartisan support done? Wow."
Bennet renewed calls for a vote on Lynch.
"It's been a historic and record-breaking 129 days since the President submitted Ms. Lynch's nomination. This delay has been longer than the five previous Attorney General nominees combined. With all of the wasted time over the last three months, it's hard to believe we haven’t already taken this vote," Bennet said in a statement. "And we certainly shouldn't delay it over a political fight about women's access to health care."
NRSC Chairman Roger Wicker of Mississippi said, however, it's the Democrats who are obstructing.
"Here's what I really think: Harry Reid and his Democratic colleagues don't like to vote on issues. This was true in the last term of Congress, and Harry Reid led his caucus off the cliff in so doing," Wicker said. "What do you do if you're in the minority and you still don't want to take votes? You can't fill up the amendment tree because you're no longer in the majority."
And even Kirk said that while he thought including the abortion policy in the anti-human trafficking bill was wrong, Democrats ran the risk of overreach.
"They are making the same mistake that Democrats made in the 1850s when they defended slavery," he said. "We should all be neo-abolitionists here, to make sure that there is no right in America to enslave others using the Internet."
Related: Mitch McConnell’s Republicans Face Governing Test Little Hope for Bipartisanship With Lynch, Budget Ahead Senate Faces Trust Breakdown Over Abortion The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.