The new Congress has accomplished almost nothing so far — and conservatives are quite pleased about it.
For Republicans who want 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 not passed any new laws, the speaker is jostling 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 only one piece of new legislation alongside a host of non-binding resolutions. The House GOP, meanwhile, has rammed through dozens of bills — few, if any, of which have a chance of coming to the Senate floor.
It’s a preview of the long slog that Washington expects during divided government. But the limping pace is also a textbook example of the strategy some Republicans hope to execute for the next two years, running out the clock on Biden’s presidency and betting on beating him in 2024.
Summing up the view of many conservatives, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said: “Every day Senate Democrats are not destroying America is a good day.”’
House conservatives extracted myriad concessions from Speaker Kevin McCarthy, winning historic sway 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 to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Congress will assuredly have to clear legislation this year to raise the debt ceiling and fund the government. Yet there are few signs of anything else making its way to Biden's desk. The Senate spent its first three weeks in recess, and then a long GOP internal fight over committee assignments delayed Senate organization for another two weeks.
“I actually appreciate this go-slow approach,” said Sen. 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 bruising fight for the speakership gave way to a "honeymoon" period, as Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) cheekily put it. While the party then moved quickly to pass a series of bills — including two on abortion and one that aimed to rescind new IRS funding — those proposals will serve little purpose beyond political messaging, since they won’t survive the Democrat-controlled Senate or the president's veto.
It's not all sunshine for Republican leaders, who had to pull other pieces of legislation favored by conservatives. That included two police bills, one that aimed to “hold prosecutors accountable” and another that expressed support for law enforcement.
Yet their swift passage of legislation that has little chance of becoming law is allowing the narrow House majority to divide Democrats on issues like autonomy from Congress for the D.C. government, as well as to ding Senate Democrats — who one month ago watched McCarthy fight for his political life and are just now ramping up their pace.
“We're crashing through. We've passed a lot of our priorities. We split the Democrats on many of these votes,” said Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.), head of the House GOP campaign arm. “What matters is: Are we going to be able to get our spending bills done? And I'm hopeful that we'll see some activity over there on their side.”
The tables could always quickly turn, particularly when the debt-ceiling negotiations ramp up this summer, given the possibility that centrist Republicans could team with Democrats to ice out the right.
For now, though, both Senate and House conservatives are emboldened. That looks different depending on the chamber you look at: 10 Republican senators opposed McConnell’s election as GOP leader, and challenger Rick Scott (R-Fla.) is among those still battling with the Kentuckian, accusing him of using panel assignments as retribution (“Of course, he tossed me off the 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 fight, leading to praise from unusual corners like Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.), who said that “Kevin has kept his promises” to the right.
The House’s comparatively rapid pace, for now, is no surprise given the procedural constraints in the Senate. But at some point, roughly 18 months from now, upper-chamber Democrats will run out of floor time before the election and perhaps regret that they didn't jump in more quickly.
That’s in part due to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s decision to start the year on a three-week recess. Following that break, the chamber's Democrats contend that Republicans intentionally slowed committee organization during an internal fight 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 evade some GOP roadblocks.
“Republicans want to slow-walk because they can’t stand that the Democrats are in the majority,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), the Senate Banking Committee chair. “It's always a slow start. But this has been worse.”
McCarthy seemed to enjoy watching 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 delaying an organizing resolution and the chamber forced to immediately take up an impeachment trial for former President Donald Trump after Democrats took slim control of the chamber. But Schumer pivoted quickly to a Covid aid package, kicking off a historical period of legislating between an evenly divided Senate and a small House Democratic majority.
In a split government, any legislative goals will have to be more circumspect. Schumer is looking to bring a modest tax treaty with Chile to the Senate floor soon, along with repeal of the authorization for use of military force that cleared the way for the George W. Bush-era invasion of Iraq.
And while House Republicans joked that gridlock is good when there is a Democratic president in office, some were also optimistic about bipartisan goals, even with the 2024 presidential election looming.
“You can get big things done when you can share the blame,” said Hudson, 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 chamber's Judiciary Committee, said the party is “ready to roll” on dozens more.
“We want to get moving,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), the No. 3 Democrat.
But even then, a single Republican can slow down Circuit Court nominees for up to 30 hours — a gambit that adds up over time. It’s just one more example of why the right isn’t exactly upset about the halting start.
“From their perspective, yes,” it’s a problem, said Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, the No. 4 GOP leader and a more conservative member of party leadership. “From our perspective, it’s been great.”