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Senators Hope for Productive Stretch After Recess

Senate Democratic leaders hope to build on the momentum of passage of a Food and Drug Administration user fee bill and clear a raft of legislation in the four weeks after the Memorial Day recess.

“Contrary to popular belief, the Senate can get things done in an election year and we expect that to continue in June,” a senior Senate Democratic leadership aide said.

A Senate Republican aide said bills are more likely to pass when Democrats allow amendments to be offered to legislation. That will help determine how productive the four weeks after recess will be.

Along with passage of the FDA measure, which cleared the Senate with an overwhelming 96-1 vote, the chamber has also passed legislation reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank and a bill renewing the Violence Against Women Act.

The Senate will vote on a pay equity bill just after returning from the recess and then is expected to take up the farm bill, which Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said “is a bipartisan bill that reforms U.S. food and farm policy to save taxpayers $23 billion while strengthening and streamlining programs to continue allowing the agricultural economy to grow.”

Republicans are skeptical of the pay equity bill, which they believe is a Democratic effort to curry favor with women ahead of the November elections.

“You know how that is going to end up,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said, adding that the move was a “show vote.”

Democrats control 53 votes in the Senate and would need seven Republicans to vote with Democrats to overcome a filibuster. McCain doesn’t believe the Democrats will get the GOP votes they will need on the pay equity proposal.

McCain lamented that election-year interference with legislating keeps Democrats and Republicans from addressing serious issues that need to be tackled.

“The tragedy of that is that what we should be doing is sitting down and working things out,” he said. “That is why [Congress’] approval is 11 percent.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said the bill is important because “it will create strong incentives for employers to obey laws already in place.”

Reid said Republican support for the bill would allow that party “to send a clear message that America appreciates the contributions that women make every day.”

Regarding the farm bill, McCain said he agrees that it is an “important” piece of legislation that the Senate should consider.

Though Stabenow has struggled to cobble together a bill that meets the concerns of different areas of the country, she said she now has a filibuster-proof 60 votes. However, she noted that she will need to continue addressing issues that arise once the bill is on the floor or after it heads over to the House.

The farm bill is expected to be the target of a massive number of amendments, and leaders will have to cull them down to a manageable number to ensure that it passes in relatively short order.

“We are still talking with Members on my side of the aisle,” said Sen. Pat Roberts, ranking member of the Agriculture Committee. “We are sitting down and discussing any problems they may have. … There are always amendments to the farm bill.”

The Kansas Republican said: “Usually a farm bill takes two weeks [on the floor.] We hope to get it done in a week.”

Beyond the farm bill, both sides hope to pass a measure to avert the doubling of interest rates on student loans, but differences persist on how to pay for the measure.

Democrats want to pay for the $6 billion cost of preventing the rise in interest rates by eliminating a corporate tax provision that allows some of the highest income earners to pay less than they would otherwise in Social Security and Medicare taxes.

Senate Republicans prefer the offset used in the bill passed by the House last month, which would eliminate what GOP critics call a “slush fund” in the 2010 health care overhaul that covers prevention and public health.

But both options were defeated by the Senate on Thursday, when they failed to win the 60 votes needed to pass.

“We expect to pass that next work period,” the Senate Democratic aide said.

But it is unclear whether a compromise can be agreed to before hitting the July 1 deadline when current law expires and the interest rate on Stafford loans jumps to 6.8 percent from 3.4 percent.

Other possible candidates for action in June include a Democratic small-business tax cut bill, cybersecurity measure and an appropriations bill.