Sen. David Perdue keeps a calendar in his office to remind him how many working days the Senate has left this year.
But with just 43 legislative days remaining and a packed agenda ahead, it’s not a countdown he particularly enjoys. To make matters worse, that number counts most Fridays as in-session days, though the chamber almost always wraps up its weekly work Thursday.
“We’re going to run out of time,” the Georgia Republican said in an interview last week. “We should be in here 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
Perdue is one of 10 Republican senators who swept into office in 2014. In that election, the GOP gained nine seats in the chamber, giving the party a majority in the Senate for the first time since 2007.
They’re a group who proudly tout the value they place in hard work over empty rhetoric and talk openly about changing some of the historic processes of the Senate.
And now, amid a stalled legislative agenda that includes a brutal defeat on health care, the class is flexing its muscle and demanding more results from Republican leadership.
“We got elected to come up here to try to change the direction of the country,” Perdue said. “We’re just trying to fight through the limitations of the structure and of the traditions of the Senate that some of us feel need to be addressed to try to get some of those changes made.”
The group was instrumental in convincing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to cancel a portion of the August recess, a decision Sen. Mike Rounds said did not sit well with some of his Republican colleagues.
“Sure enough, it worked. The [Democrats] came around and we had more nominations done by threatening to take away two weeks than we did in the first six months of the year,” the South Dakota Republican said.
When House Speaker Paul D. Ryan tried to push for a contentious border adjustment tax in the pending tax overhaul, opposition from Perdue and Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, also elected in 2014, helped to sink the proposal.
Eyes on committees
And failing multiple times to repeal the 2010 health care law — a seven-year campaign promise by Republicans and one that nearly all members ran on in the 2014 election — they have their sights set on something higher: the committee process.
“One of the problems in the United States Senate is not just the partisanship, it’s the structure of the committees,” Perdue said. “It’s a joke really. It’s a fraud on the American people.”
Others agreed and said the tendency for work on major legislation to stay private among the staff of the committees of jurisdiction on a particular topic is concerning.
“We want to see the bills, because I don’t know if it’s the way its been done in the past, but we actually read bills,” Rounds said. “We want information, we want to get down into it because we came here to read bills, we came here to analyze, we came here to make those small decisions; that’s our jobs.”
One GOP senator, speaking on background, spelled out drastic consequences should the Senate continue down a path of the “committee as a whole” process that they believed contributed to the failure of the health care effort.
But others see it as a change that could further align power at the top despite the appearance that more senators have influence in the process.
“It’s counterintuitive because some people think that that can be dangerous and you can lose control,” Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, also elected in 2014, said. “If that can be done right, leadership gains more control.”
Altering the rules and process of a legislative body built solidly on traditions grounded in decades of adherence is a monumental task and one that would certainly run into opposition from more established members of the chamber.
But the 2014 class has shown they can stick together. And with a membership that accounts for nearly 20 percent of the Republican majority in the Senate, the numbers are on their side.
‘The Bear Den’
Members of the Republican Senate class of 2014 meet as a group almost every other week.
Touted as the “Bear Den,” the meetings serve as an opportunity for open dialogue on a particular topic. While the attendees change each week depending on schedules, the gatherings help the group to maintain their camaraderie.
Their group on paper may resemble something of a Freedom Caucus — the coalition of conservative lawmakers in the House — but they differ in several major ways.
Unlike that group, led by GOP Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, the Senate class of 2014 doesn’t take a stance on legislation as a singular body and are quick to shoot down any assumption they are a formal caucus. Instead, they frame themselves as a force for positive change, with the goal of helping leadership accomplish the major GOP agenda items.
But their frustration is growing.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, who was also elected in the 2014 wave, said waiting two years for a new administration has created restlessness on the part of members who were elected to make change.
“That hasn’t been the case as much as many of us would like,” she said last week.
When asked whether the failure thus far to do much of anything legislatively is on the part of GOP leadership, Capito said she is “not in the business of second-guessing.”
“I think they’re all tough calls, but sometimes they don’t go your way,” she said.
(In addition to Perdue, Cotton, Rounds, Tillis and Capito, the GOP class of 2014 senators includes Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Steve Daines of Montana, Cory Gardner of Colorado, Joni Ernst of Iowa and Dan Sullivan of Alaska.)
Following the health care defeat, Perdue issued a blistering statement in which he vented frustration over the failure of a Republican-controlled Washington, D.C., to fulfill a core promise to voters.
“There is a complete lack of Congressional leadership and no accountability to get results,” he said. “From the get go, three Republican Senate Chairmen failed to support our efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare as we have all promised to do.”
Perdue was referencing Armed Services Chairman John McCain of Arizona, Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Aging Chairwoman Susan Collins of Maine — three Republicans who pushed back on GOP repeal efforts.
When asked about those comments, he continued to blast the GOP trio.
“In most worlds outside of Washington, people who are in leadership are held accountable for their results, either good or bad. We kind of live in a different world here,” he said.