Conservatives cheer as Congress begins with little to show for it
The new Congress has accomplished next to nothing so far – and the conservatives are very happy with that.
For Republicans looking to slow President Joe Biden’s agenda and court confrontation with Democrats, the beginning of the year has played out beautifully. The House and Senate have passed no new laws, the Speaker is clashing with Biden over the debt ceiling, and the new Congress’ most significant collaboration was agreeing to meet for the State of the Union.
The Democratic Senate has held just eight roll call votes on nominees and approved just one piece of new legislation along with a host of non-binding resolutions. The House GOP, meanwhile, has hammered through dozens of bills — few, if any, of which have a chance of making it to the Senate.
It is a foretaste of the long battle that Washington expects under a divided government. But the limping pace is also a textbook example of the strategy some Republicans hope to execute in the next two years, running out the clock on Biden’s presidency and betting on beating him in 2024.
Summarizing the view of many conservatives, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said, “Every day that Senate Democrats don’t destroy America is a good day.”
House conservatives extracted countless concessions from the Speaker Kevin McCarthy, is gaining historic influence over key levers of Congress — including the panel that sets the chamber’s floor votes. Even in the Senate, the GOP’s right flank is celebrating the sleepy six weeks since being sworn in on Jan. 3 and mounting its first-ever challenge for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Congress will certainly need to clear legislation this year to raise the debt ceiling and fund the government. Still, there are few signs that anything else is headed for Biden’s desk. The Senate spent the first three weeks in recess, and then a long internal battle within the GOP over committee assignments delayed Senate organization for another two weeks.
“I actually appreciate this go-slow approach,” Sen said. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.), who said the country needs a “breather” after the past two years. “It’s time to slow down.”
Over in the House, McCarthy’s bruised battle for the speakership gave way to a “honeymoon” as Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) said it cheekily. While the party then moved quickly to pass a series of bills — including two on abortion and one aimed at rescinding new IRS funding — those proposals will serve no purpose beyond political messaging as they will not survive the Democrat-controlled senate or presidential veto.
It’s not just sunshine for Republican leaders, who had to pull other pieces of legislation favored by conservatives. It included two police laws, one aimed at “holding prosecutors accountable” and another expressing support for law enforcement.
Still, their swift passage of legislation that has little chance of becoming law gives the narrow House majority to divide Democrats on issues like congressional autonomy for the D.C. government, as well as to Senate Democrats — who a month ago saw McCarthy fight for his political life and is currently gearing up.
“We’re crashing through. We’ve passed a lot of our priorities. We split the Democrats on a lot of those votes,” said Rep. Richard Hudson (RN.C.), head of the House GOP campaign arm. “What matters is: Are we going to be able to get our utility bills done? And I hope we’ll see some activity over there on their side.”
The tables can always turn quickly, especially as debt ceiling talks ramp up this summer, given the possibility that Republicans in the middle could team up with Democrats to ice out to the right.
For now, however, both Senate and House conservatives are brave. It looks different depending on the chamber you’re looking at: 10 Republican senators opposed McConnell’s pick for GOP leader and challenger Rick Scott (R-Fla.) is among those still fighting the Kentuckian, accusing him of using panel assignments as retaliation (“Of course he kicked me out of committee because I ran against him,” Scott said of the Commerce Committee).
In the House, McCarthy won over much of his opposition after a bruising speaker’s battle, leading to praise from unusual corners such as Rep. Ralph Norman (RS.C.) who said that “Kevin has kept his promises” to the right.
The relatively fast pace of the House, for now, is no surprise given the procedural constraints of the Senate. But at some point, about 18 months from now, upper house Democrats will run out of floor time before the election and may regret not jumping in sooner.
This is partly due to the Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer‘s decision to start the year with a three-week break. After that hiatus, chamber Democrats allege that Republicans deliberately slowed the committee organization amid an internal battle over where senators like Rick Scott and a new crop of GOP freshmen would end up.
Schumer says at least having a 51-49 majority will allow them to avoid some GOP roadblocks.
“The Republicans want to go slow because they can’t stand the Democrats being in the majority,” the senator said. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), chairman of the Senate Banking Committee. “It’s always a slow start. But this has been worse.”
McCarthy seemed to enjoy seeing Democrats across the building, remarking last month, “Is the Senate even in this week? What did they do this week? Oh, yeah, they haven’t been in.”
The last Senate started at a similarly glacial pace, with McConnell delay an organizing solution and the chamber forced to immediately impeach former President Donald Trump after Democrats took slim control of the chamber. But Schumer quickly pivoted to a Covid aid package that started a historic period of legislation between an evenly divided Senate and a slim Democratic majority in the House.
In a divided government, any legislative goals must be more carefully considered. Schumer is seeking to bring a modest tax deal with Chile to the Senate soon, along with rescinding the authorization for the use of military force that paved the way for the George W. Bush-era invasion of Iraq.
And while House Republicans joked that gridlock is good when there’s a Democratic president in office, some were also optimistic about bipartisan goals, even with the 2024 presidential election looming.
“You can get great things done when you can share the blame,” Hudson said, pointing to the debt ceiling.
In the immediate term, Democrats are shifting their focus to what can be done unilaterally.
Senate Democrats just confirmed their first judge of this Congress, and majority whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, said the party is “ready to roll” on dozens more.
“We want to get started,” the senator said. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), the No. 3 Democrat.
But even then, a single Republican can stall Circuit Court nominees for up to 30 hours — a gambit that adds up over time. It’s just another example of why the right wing isn’t exactly upset about the halting start.
“From their perspective, yes,” said Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, the No. 4 GOP leader and a more conservative member of the party leadership. “From our perspective, it’s been great.”