The Senate left town Friday with Trump’s administration barely staffed, Republicans’ legislative agenda stuck in neutral and Democrats using parliamentary tactics to make senators and staffers’ life a blur of partisan fights and all-night debates. The House left Thursday in barely better shape.
On Capitol Hill, it’s been a less than stellar start for Trump’s vows to shake up Washington.
“Slower than we want, certainly. We’d like to get these [nominees] behind us and get on to policy,” said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). But, he admitted, when it comes to Republicans’ top priorities — Obamacare repeal and tax reform — “Nothing’s ready to bring to the floor.”
In the Senate, Democrats have stymied Trump’s Cabinet to a degree that has no historical precedent, eating away at precious floor time and delaying the GOP’s agenda until the spring. The House doesn’t have the arduous task of confirming hundreds of Trump’s nominees, but Republican infighting over health care and taxes has raised serious doubts about whether a bill signing on either issue will ever be in the offing.
The bruising Cabinet conflict is boiling over in both parties after a bitter seven weeks in session. Democrats held the Senate in session overnight three times in the past two weeks, dragging out debates on nomination battles even they knew they could not win.
A bloc of junior Republican senators privately pushed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to retaliate by keeping the chamber in for an eighth consecutive week to steamroll recalcitrant Democrats, according to senators and aides.
In the end, the request was deemed impractical by GOP leaders, with a bipartisan group of senators headed abroad and a building complex filled with exhausted lawmakers and aides. Votes on Cabinet nominees next week could have failed due to attendance problems among Republicans, who enjoy a slim 52-48 advantage over Democrats.
But the frustration among Republicans is real.
“Personally, I’d like to turn the Senate on and leave it open, 24-7, until we get this done. Seriously. And there are several of us pushing for that,” Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) said. “It’s unfortunate we’ve got a recess week. Several of us would love to stay here and get this done. You had a weekend a couple of weekends ago that we wanted to stay here.”
A spokeswoman for freshman Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) confirmed that he “fully supports working late nights and weekends to move the Republican agenda as fast as possible.” At least a half-dozen senators were pushing the effort, though several asked not to be named to avoid provoking a fight with Senate leaders.
Republicans — including Trump — are furious that Democrats have strung out debate on a series of Trump’s nominees for as long as they can, occasionally letting through less controversial figures like Small Business Administration chief Linda McMahon or Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin. The effect has been that Trump’s agencies have been rudderless for weeks — and that the Senate floor has been tied in knots.
“It’s pretty hard to get anything done if you’re spending all your time trying to get your Cabinet approved,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the longest-serving Republican senator.
Republicans will return to a continued slog on nominees on Feb. 27, pressing to confirm Wilbur Ross to the Commerce Department, Ryan Zinke to the Interior Department, Ben Carson to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and Rick Perry to the Energy Department — a roster that could take nearly 100 additional hours of debate to finish.
But there are literally hundreds more nominees that must be confirmed to staff Trump’s administration: Agriculture Department nominee Sonny Perdue, undersecretaries, ambassadors and members of organizations like the National Labor Relations Board. If Democrats keep stringing this out, it could become impossible to both pass a legislative agenda and confirm everyone that Trump needs to run his administration.
And Democrats are not ruling out further delays for many of Trump’s lower-level nominees. As Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) put it: “There are no exceptions for advise and consent.”
“Our hope is that the deputy and assistant secretaries who do a lot of the work aren’t as radical and as unqualified as these. So we want to make it clear: If they are, then this is going to keep going,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “If you keep putting up people as unqualified as Betsy DeVos or as conflicted as Scott Pruitt, there’s going to be a lot of long days and nights.”
He noted with some satisfaction that at this point in 2009, President Barack Obama had most of his Cabinet installed and had already signed into law the $787 billion economic stimulus bill. By contrast, Trump has signed two resolutions rolling back regulations, a government accountability bill and a waiver allowing confirmation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
Democrats say delaying the GOP’s legislative agenda even as Trump grows more unpopular is a side effect of their floor tactics, not the motivating force behind them. But Republicans are already growing worried that they will be forced to pass another continuing resolution to keep the government funded in late April rather than attempt an omnibus or individual appropriations bills as one of the consequences of Democrats’ floor strategy.
“Lack of accomplishment, if that’s the goal of Democrats, then they’re accomplishing that,” said Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.).
Of course, it’s Republicans, not Democrats, who are struggling mightily to devise a plan to repeal and replace the health care law they’ve targeted for years. The GOP is also sharply divided over rewriting the tax code, with Speaker Paul Ryan facing blowback from members in his own party about a plan to change the way imports and exports are taxed.
There have been some bright spots for Republicans: Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch is proceeding apace and may be confirmed in early April. And the GOP is rolling back Obama-era regulations as fast as it can through a procedure that precludes the filibuster. That is tiding over even some of the most combative senators — for now.
“Repealing three regulations that will hopefully save tens of thousands of American jobs, I think that’s a big deal,” said Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). But, he added: “There’s going to be a lot unhappiness from a lot of people if we don’t have an [Obamacare] repeal vote in a month or two months.”