WASHINGTON -- Mitch McConnell says the Senate will be in the "personnel business" this year. But the majority leader's focus on confirming President Donald Trump's nominees is coming at the expense of any big legislative priorities.
Nearly 100 days into the new Congress, the drive to confirm is adding more conservatives to the courts and putting more Trump appointees in government offices. But Trump's promises to replace the Affordable Care Act, invest in infrastructure or cut middle class taxes have been essentially shelved.
The result is that the GOP-controlled Senate is on a very different path heading into the 2020 election than is the House, where the Democratic majority is churning out a long list of bills on ethics, gun violence and other topics that, while unlikely to become law, show voters their priorities.
Sara Binder, an expert on Congress at George Washington University, said there doesn't seem to be much room in the Senate "to set out a policy agenda and make some progress toward it." She added: "It does leave on the table quite a number of issues that don't get any progress."
Underlying his strategy, McConnell, R-Ky., engineered a rules change last week to speed the confirmation process, pushing past Democrats' stalling of Trump's picks for administration jobs and district courts.
"Look, we know you don't like Donald Trump, but there was an election," McConnell argued on the Senate floor to the Democrats, saying the president "is at least entitled to set up the administration and make it function."
Democratic senators see a much more deliberative strategy. Rather than try to work with Democrats — and Trump — to pass bills that can be turned into law, they say McConnell is simply blocking bills from the House while spending his time packing the courts with conservatives judges as part of a broader legacy of reshaping the judiciary.
Already McConnell spent the first two years of the administration confirming a record 30 circuit court nominees. With seven more confirmed this year, he's now turning to the district courts; four nominees already are teed up for Senate action.
"What Leader McConnell, President Trump and Republicans in the Senate are trying to do is use the courts to adopt the far-right agenda that Republicans know they cannot enact through the legislative process," Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York said during the floor debate.
In an earlier time, McConnell was an advocate of capitalizing on divided government to foster deal-making. Compromises between Democrats and Republicans ended a budget crisis during President Barack Obama's administration and produced bills on other education and topics.
But so far this year, the big-ticket items have been elusive. Trump wanted GOP senators to try again to replace Obama's health care law, but without a substantive plan, McConnell quashed that effort until after the 2020 election.
Republicans are quick to blame House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., saying there's almost nothing Senate Republicans and House Democrats can agree on. As if to prove the point, McConnell forced the Senate into a vote on the Green New Deal from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., highlighting Democratic tensions with the liberal flank of their party.
Yet it's clear that Republicans have had their own difficulty with Trump, whose shifting positions have left them without fully shared policy priorities. For example, many Republicans oppose Trump's tariffs as leverage in trade negotiations. One major bill that did pass the Senate rebuked Trump's plan to withdraw troops from Syria.
Trump opposed two substantive measures that cleared both chambers of Congress. He vetoed one that went against his national emergency to build the U.S.-Mexico border wall and has threatened to veto another that's opposing U.S. involvement in the war in Yemen.
"If you're talking about a big bold vision, yea, I'd like to do entitlement reform, I'd like to do tax reform 2.0 — there are a whole bunch of things on the economic agenda that I think we can do, but those things aren't going to move in a Democrat House," said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the second-ranking Republican.
"It's just hard right now," he said. "In terms of legislative expectations I think we're being realistic and not setting the bar too high, but there are some things that I think can get done."
One of the only jobs McConnell ever wanted was in the Senate, he says in his biography, "The Long Game." But after more 30 years in office, the majority leader often seen as an institutionalist is steadily changing the way the chamber operates.
In many ways, he's simply building on the moves made by a predecessor, Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who used the "nuclear option" to change the rules to more easily approve Obama's Cabinet officials and most judges with a majority, rather than the 60-vote threshold in the 100-member Senate.
McConnell took it further, going "nuclear" to usher through Trump's Supreme Court nominees, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, and again with last week's changes that slashed debate time on most nominees from 30 hours to two.
Some say it's only a matter of time before the legislative filibuster, which sets a 60-vote threshold to advance most legislation, becomes the next to fall.
Not everyone opposes such changes. On Friday, presidential contender Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaking at the National Action Network, said if Democrats take control they should end the filibuster. She cited the filibuster's role in stopping anti-lynching and civil rights legislation.
Even some Democrats see the hours of idle debate on lower-level picks as a waste of time.
"Our obligation as senators is not to try to revive the old Senate, but rather to figure out how we can build a new Senate that has its own customs and rules and institutional perogative that will work in a modern era," said Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii.
But for now, the Senate has a singular focus.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who faces re-election next year, isn't sure confirmations will be enough for voters. But in divided Washington, he sees few other options.
"The personnel business may be the whole game," he said.
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