Senate Democrats still without committee control as power-sharing talks drag on

Merrick Garland nomination limbo encapsulates “complicated situation”

The Senate has been without a power-sharing agreement almost a month into the 117th Congress, but Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer says leaders are “getting close.” (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
The Senate has been without a power-sharing agreement almost a month into the 117th Congress, but Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer says leaders are “getting close.” (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted February 2, 2021 at 8:04pm

The Senate is still operating in a fraught liminal space, in which Democrats have control of the chamber but Republicans retain power over committees. Negotiations between Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell are dragging on a month into the 117th Congress, and complicating Cabinet confirmations.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, said Monday night he thought an organizing resolution might clear the floor the following day. And a few Republicans thought that was the plan Tuesday morning. But it never materialized.

“We’re making progress, and we’re getting close,” Schumer told reporters Tuesday, not providing a timeline for when the Senate might act.

One signal that a deal may actually be close was Schumer’s announcement Tuesday afternoon of committee assignments for the Democratic Conference.

Among the highlights of those assignments: The two Georgia freshmen whose tandem wins tipped the chamber toward Democratic control were assigned to key panels: Jon Ossoff to Judiciary and Raphael Warnock to Agriculture.

They will also both serve on the Banking Committee and a handful of other panels.

Arizona Democrat Mark Kelly, a retired Navy pilot and astronaut who won a special election in November, will serve on the Armed Services Committee, as well as on Energy and Natural Resources and on Environment and Public Works.

And California Democrat Alex Padilla, who was appointed to replace Vice President Kamala Harris, will serve on the Judiciary, Budget and Homeland Security committees, among others.

Garland waits, again

U.S. Circuit Judge Merrick G. Garland found himself trapped in GOP-led Senate inaction once again, when South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham on Monday rejected a request from incoming Senate Judiciary Chairman Richard J. Durbin to hold a confirmation hearing next week. Garland is President Joe Biden’s nominee to be attorney general.

While Schumer is in charge of the floor, the lack of a power-sharing deal has frozen committees from the previous Congress, with Republicans holding all chairmanships. GOP committee heads, or at least those who did not retire and are still around, have continued to run their panels, including Graham on Judiciary.

“It’s a very complicated situation, but the bottom line is I’ve been promised the authority. I do not have it yet,” Durbin told reporters Tuesday.

“I’m not officially the chairman of the committee. We are in the majority, because of the vote with the vice president, so I had to contact the chairman from the previous Congress, Sen. Graham,” the Illinois Democrat added.

Garland was President Barack Obama’s pick for the Supreme Court in 2016, but his nomination faced an unprecedented blockade by the GOP-controlled Senate. The former chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit languished without Senate Judiciary action for 293 days until the nomination eventually expired when the new Congress convened in 2017. President Donald Trump nominated Neil M. Gorsuch to the vacancy in January of that year, and Republicans acted swiftly to fill the high court seat, confirming Gorsuch that April.

Now Garland is waiting again, at the whim of Senate Republicans. Durbin requested a hearing be scheduled for Feb. 8, before Trump’s second impeachment trial begins, but Graham rejected that proposal.

“A one-day hearing as you are proposing the day before the impeachment trial of a former president is insufficient,” he wrote in a letter to Durbin. “Democrats do not get to score political points in an unprecedented act of political theater on one hand while also trying to claim the mantle of good government on the other.”

Durbin responded to the delay Tuesday, saying, “I regret that once again I need to come to the floor to call on the Senate Republicans to stop blocking Merrick Garland from receiving a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. We all remember the way Merrick Garland, a judge in the circuit court in the D.C. Circuit, was treated by Senate Republicans in 2016.”

Other panels, such as the Agriculture Committee, found themselves in similarly complicated positions but have managed to move forward on nominees.

During a Tuesday morning hearing on Agriculture Secretary nominee Tom Vilsack, Arkansas Republican John Boozman pointed out that with the retirement of former Chairman Pat Roberts of Kansas, the panel was without a top lawmaker, even a holdover from the last Congress.

“You’ll notice that neither of us, or [Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow], is sitting in the chairman’s seat,” Boozman said. “We hold this hearing as equal partners today.”

Filibuster set aside

Schumer and McConnell were able to move past a major sticking point on filibuster rules that had ground negotiations to a halt last month, but neither party leader has aired what roadblocks remain.

McConnell wanted assurances that the filibuster, the procedural tool that effectively requires at least 60 votes to pass most legislation, would remain intact. The Kentucky Republican agreed to move forward with negotiations after Democrats Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona stated their opposition to eliminating the filibuster.

“It was set back when Leader McConnell made an extraneous demand trying to tell our caucus how to run things when we’re in the majority,” Schumer said Tuesday, before adding that discussions were continuing.

McConnell and Schumer have both said the power-sharing deal will be modeled after the rules that governed the chamber the last time it was tied, in 2001. But they have not elaborated on departures from that framework. The resolution, when finalized, will then need to be adopted by the chamber. Only then can committees move forward and organize, with Democratic senators formally taking the gavels.