Sad Fact for GOP: A Senate Majority in Name Only
Embarrassing legislative failures highlight the reality that Sen. Mitch McConnell doesn't control the chamber
The House of Representatives has sent bill after bill to die in the Senate. The upper chamber failed spectacularly on attempts to repeal Obamacare. Tax reform hangs by a thread.
It all adds up to a painfully apparent reality that academics recognize and conservative activists lament — the Republican majority in the Senate is a majority in name only.
"It's a crisis in governing for Republicans, but it's a crisis in government for our democracy," said James Thurber, founder and former director of American University's Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies.
Thurber said the founding fathers designed a system that intentionally makes it hard to pass laws. He said that job is even more challenging for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) because he has a narrow 52-48 majority and a fractious caucus with ideological divisions.
McConnell has been unable to shepherd major legislation past the finish line. And bipartisanship is rarer than ever. Thurber said only about 4 percent of senators vote regularly with senators from the opposing party; it was about a third in the 1960s and 1970s.
"The leadership is weak because the followership is weak," he said. "It's not working even on ... investment and infrastructure, which I thought would find a lot of support."
Grass-roots conservatives, who had sky-high expectations when Republicans finally gained simultaneous control of the White House, the House, and the Senate, now are in open revolt. A coalition of organizations last week called on McConnell and his entire leadership team to step down from their leadership positions.
"We do not have a working majority," said Jason Pye, vice president of legislative affairs of FreedomWorks. "We have a leadership team that is totally disconnected from the base."
Pye acknowledged that the Senate has managed to confirm most of Trump's nominees to administration posts and the courts, and has reversed some regulations passed at the end of the Barack Obama administration through the Congressional Review Act. Other than that, he said, "I have yet to see a tangible, a major, legislative victory."
Rage Over Obamacare Failure
Conservatives are most enraged by the inability of McConnell to push through even a watered-down repeal of Obamacare after promising in campaign after campaign to do so.
"It's a sign of leadership quality to hold the conference together on a basic tenet," said Noah Wall, the vice president of advocacy at FreedomWorks, which supports smaller government.
Wall questioned why the grass roots worked so hard to deliver a Senate majority to the GOP. "Our activists ask, what's the point?" he said.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has used the filibuster, or the threat of filibuster, to block hundreds of House-passed bills that require 60 votes to pass. But Republicans failed even on health care despite using a parliamentary procedure known as "budget reconciliation" that would have allowed them to partially repeal Obamacare with a simple majority.
But after months of negotiations, McConnell could not produce a plan acceptable to both the moderate and conservative wings of the Senate's GOP caucus. That division was on display again this week when the Senate began debate over a budget resolution that would allow the chamber to pass a tax reform package with a simple majority.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) voted Tuesday to start debate — in deference to President Donald Trump, he explained — but warned he would not vote for the budget itself unless it adheres to spending caps Congress negotiated during Barack Obama's presidency. If they lose Paul on that vote Thursday or Friday, Senate leaders could afford only one more defection.
"My question is, are these people serious, or are they all hypocrites?"
Paul didn't just lay out his view on the budget, he took a swipe at fellow Republican senators who are "not fiscally conservative," such as John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
"They want unlimited spending ... They think when it comes to defense, you can spend whatever you want," he told reporters Tuesday.
Paul said the budget as currently written is a "charade, an illusion," pretending to stick to spending caps by putting $43 billion into a category called the "overseas contingency fund" that does not count against the spending limit. What's more, he said, the budget promises $96 billion in unspecified entitlement spending reform with no instructions about how to achieve it.
"My question is, are these people serious, or are they all hypocrites?" he said.
'They Can't Even Pass a Budget'
David Bozell, president of ForAmerica, said Paul has a point. He said it is but one more confirmation that Republicans control the Senate on paper only.
"So much for having a majority when you're talking about busting budget caps," he said. "They can't seem to get their act together … They can't even pass a budget, for God's sake."
Bozell said Republican complaints of Democratic obstructionism increasingly ring hollow. He said the Senate could step up its work schedule to force votes on nominees more quickly if it wanted to. He also said the Senate leadership should force Democrats to actually carry out filibusters. On matters requiring only 51 votes, he said, the governing party should be able to pass its agenda.
"Their performance is beyond head-scratching at this point," he said.
Wall faulted McConnell for his approach to health care. He said the majority leader "did not start the negotiating process from a principled Republican position."
Bozell faulted the process that had a handful of Republicans drafting a bill behind closed doors. He argued that Republicans might benefit from a leader more capable of making a sales pitch to the American people. He also said Republican senators should face consequences for breaking ranks.
"There is no political price to be paid by Republican senators for bucking Republican principles," he said.
But Thurber, the American University professor and co-author of "American Gridlock: The Sources, Character and Impact of Political Polarization," said there is a risk in trying to punish recalcitrant members.
"I don't think a heavier hand would work. The Senate gets the leadership that it wants. If he [McConnell] pressed too hard, he wouldn't stay as majority leader," he said. "These are not the times when you can have an LBJ as majority leader and threaten people."
Pye said if Republican senators fail to deliver on tax reform, they won't even have a paper majority after next year's midterm elections.
"If they don't have any tangible legislative victories, good luck getting the conservative grass-roots activists to show up," he said.