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Senate Has Small Window of Legislative Opportunity

In the midst of one of the most polarized Congresses in decades, Senate Democrats and Republicans expect to come together to pass a handful of bills this month before the legislative spigot gets turned down this summer and the parties begin to more furiously jockey ahead of the election.

Democrats contend that they have a robust legislative agenda through June, including a bill averting an increase in student loan interest rates, a measure reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank, a massive bill to reauthorize farm programs, a Food and Drug Administration user fee bill and legislation imposing sanctions on Iran.

Senate Democratic leaders also may seek to pass one of the 12 annual appropriations bills and a highway bill compromise — if the conference committee working on the measure reaches agreement.

“The conventional wisdom is that you can’t do much legislating in an election year, but we are disproving that with one major, bipartisan bill after another. Let’s hope the trend continues,” Senate Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) said.

Of course, those accomplishments are not expected to come without hiccups and hang-ups. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Thursday bemoaned a GOP-led delay on the Ex-Im Bank bill and even went so far as to muse that he may have been wrong in late 2010 and early 2011 to oppose efforts among his Conference to restrict filibusters. But once the measure overcomes a few procedural hurdles, it is expected to pass easily.

But by June, the legislative trains may have a harder time moving. A Senate Democratic aide said the party intends to continue to try to legislate this summer, but, as usually happens in an election year, Democrats expect things to slow as the November elections near.

The Senate recently passed a surface transportation bill, a Postal Service reform bill and a bill strengthening protections against domestic violence. Earlier this year, the Senate cleared a capital formation bill and a measure extending insider-trading restrictions to Congressional and administration staff.

A senior Senate GOP aide said those bills were passed because Democrats allowed Republicans to offer amendments to them — for example, 39 amendments were offered to the postal reform bill. Those bills were stalled before they were given that opportunity, the aide said, underscoring Republicans’ frustration at being denied the ability to represent their constituents and change legislation.

Republicans agree that there is much important legislating to do and expect some things to get done between now and June. But after that, they expect a significant slowdown as both parties look to position themselves for the upcoming elections.

“That sounds about right to me,” the aide said.

Still, Republicans complain that Democrats have used the floor to gain political advantage with votes on legislation never designed to pass. The Senate GOP aide said that strategy has made it harder to negotiate with Democrats.

Republicans pointed to the efforts last week to pass a bill that would prevent interest rates on Stafford loans from doubling to 6.8 percent beginning July 1.

While both parties want to avoid the interest rate increase, disagreement remains over how to pay for the $6 billion cost.

Democrats have offered a bill that would eliminate a corporate tax loophole that allows wealthy individuals to pay less in Social Security and Medicare taxes.

But Republicans believe that would hurt small businesses and job creation.

They voted against the measure on a procedural vote last week because, they said, they want to spur negotiations between House Republican leaders and Senate Democratic leaders. The House passed a student loan interest rate relief bill that would cover the cost by eliminating a fund in the 2010 health care overhaul that covers prevention and public health — something Democrats oppose.

Another procedural vote is possible, but Democratic leaders have not said if, or when, it would take place.

Meanwhile, the Senate is set to vote Monday on House-passed legislation that would extend the Ex-Im Bank’s charter through Sept. 30, 2014, and incrementally increase its lending cap.

It’s unclear whether the bill will get the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster Monday, because Republicans who back the bill might want to support their colleagues who would be denied the right to offer amendments. However, talks have been under way about what amendments the two parties are willing to accept, according to a Senate GOP aide. If an agreement is reached on amendments, the vote may not take place, a Senate Democratic aide said.

Aides from both parties are cautiously optimistic the bill will pass, despite opposition from some conservatives. Sens. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) see the bank, which is designed to facilitate the sale of U.S. exports abroad, as wasteful corporate welfare.

The measure, however, is the product of a rare compromise between House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). It passed that chamber 330-93 last week.

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