While it is not quite an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object, the metaphor is close enough: Freshman House Democrats who roared into the majority in January with ambitious legislative plans are increasingly facing the reality of a Senate majority leader who has little interest in what they want.
The latest reality check came on Wednesday when a substantial portion of first-year House Democrats — 62 members — urged Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to act on HR 1, a sweeping House-passed bill that seeks to fortify ethics rules for public officials, overhaul campaign finance and expand access to voting.
In a letter to the Kentucky Republican, the Democrats stressed how they pledged action on those three pillars as their first priority of the 116th Congress. Several of the signatories staged a press conference Wednesday in front of the Capitol where they implored the Senate to act.
“We call upon Mitch McConnell. What are you waiting for? What are you waiting for? I’m not asking for him to vote for this. I’m asking for him to put it up for a vote,” New Jersey Democrat Andy Kim said.
The For the People Act, introduced by Maryland Democrat John Sarbanes passed the House in March with 235 Democratic co-sponsors. The companion bill in the Senate, S 949, was introduced by New Mexico Democrat Tom Udall in March but no action has been taken since.
“He won’t even take a meeting with us,” Rep. Max Rose, a New York Democrat, said of McConnell.
A spokesman for McConnell didn’t specifically address the letter, but said the senator had spoken on the floor many times regarding the bill and emailed a quote from a March press release: “Of course, this sprawling, 622-page doorstop is never going to become law. I certainly don’t plan to even bring it to the floor here in the Senate. There are always improvements and reforms to be made — but this isn’t it.”
Under HR 1, members of Congress would have to reimburse the Treasury Department for settlements and awards paid under the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995, which would prohibit them from using taxpayer dollars to settle cases of employment discrimination by lawmakers.
The overhaul would prohibit members of Congress from serving on boards of for-profit companies, an issue that has been on the forefront of congressional ethics concerns after New York GOP Rep. Chris Collins was charged by the Securities and Exchange Commission for alleged insider trading.
The complaint pertains to his alleged actions regarding an Australian biotech company, Innate Immunotherapeutics. Collins was a member of the board of directors for the company, while simultaneously representing New York’s 27th District. There is a House Ethics investigative subcommittee inquiry into Collins and, separately, he has a federal district court trial scheduled for February 2020 in New York City.
HR 1 also seeks to codify rules prohibiting lawmakers and staff from using their official positions to improve their financial interests. It would also require online linking of Federal Election Commission reports and Lobbying Disclosure Act reports. Further, the bill would require that all reports from federal agencies mandated by Congress be published online in a searchable database.
The freshman House Democrats, and their more veteran colleagues, are likely aware of the chances of action on HR1 in the GOP-controlled Senate. But that does not mean they won’t be using it as a political talking point in their 2020 re-election efforts.
Katherine Tully-McManus contributed to this report.