Court Battle Threatens Senate Action on Spending, Infrastructure

A bruising fight over filling the Supreme Court vacancy, which the leaders of both parties continued Wednesday morning on the Senate floor, could diminish chances for action on spending, infrastructure and other legislation.

Prospects for another economic stimulus to help virus recovery efforts were faltering before the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) intention to proceed with confirming a nominee to fill her seat makes it less likely that House and Senate leaders will negotiate deals on annual appropriations bills or pass many other items during a post-election, lame-duck session, strategists said.

“My guess is this is the gasoline on the fire for how difficult this fall is going to be,” said Bill Hoagland, a former longtime Republican aide on the Senate Budget Committee. “The raw feelings that will be engendered by the handling of this nominee could easily stymie just about everything going forward, including a National Defense Authorization Act.”

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the decision means President Donald Trump’s pick, set to be announced Saturday, could be confirmed before the Nov. 3 election. Democrats have criticized Republicans for proceeding with filling the seat even though McConnell refused to hold a vote on the nomination of Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court pick, eight months before the 2016 election.

Schumer said McConnell’s actions threaten the Senate’s traditions of compromise that already are on life support.

“It created a lot of mistrust and ill-feeling in a way that I haven’t seen it occur in the Senate in a very long time,” Schumer told reporters this week.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer
Photographer: Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/Bloomberg
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) speaks during a news conference outside the Capitol Tuesday on Republican plans to fill a Supreme Court vacancy created by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

McConnell’s strategy is unleashing “a tornado wrapped in a tsunami” on the Senate, said Izzy Klein, a former aide to Schumer and a partner with the Klein/Johnson Group. He said that increases the chances lawmakers opt to push decisions about aid packages, budgets and vaccine policy into next year.

McConnell on Tuesday defended proceeding with the confirmation process, saying it’s part of “our job description.”

Read More: U.S. Stimulus Prospects Darken With Partisan Strains Over Court

The majority leader’s schedule provides for two more work weeks after Trump announces his pick this weekend, but that could be upended by plans for confirmation hearings and possible votes.

While the House passed 10 of the dozen appropriations bills for fiscal 2021, the Senate hasn’t marked up or passed any spending measures. Hoagland said McConnell doesn’t plan to advance them, and as a result he doesn’t see the basis for the two sides to negotiate expansive, multi-bill packages in the lame duck session.

The Senate plans to consider a House-passed stopgap spending bill (H.R. 8337) that would keep the federal government funded through Dec. 11. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in an interview at the Atlantic Ideas Festival on Tuesday she still wants Congress to finalize 12 fiscal 2021 appropriations bills and provide more economic stimulus by then. McConnell has not announced any plans for moving those spending bills.

Punting Legislation

Klein said the Senate may eventually extend that short-term measure into the first quarter of 2021 to give Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden more say if he wins the election.

A second stopgap would likely only carry non-controversial program extensions and could be a vehicle for extending expired tax breaks, Hoagland said.

“If the Senate switches, I would say the Democrats have no reason to want to negotiate anything in the lame duck, and everything gets pushed into the next Congress,” Hoagland said.

Other measures that could get left behind are a reauthorization of surface transportation programs (S. 2302); authorization for funding for ports, harbors, and other waterway projects overseen by the Army Corps of Engineers (S. 3591); and a package of bills (S. 2657) to promote energy efficiency, renewables, and nuclear energy.

Klein said he’s more hopeful that lawmakers will finish the $740.5 billion defense authorization. The Senate and House have already passed their versions of the measure although conferees haven’t been named to produce the final package. In the past, lawmakers have passed the defense measure annually with bipartisan backing.

Slowing It Down

Senate Democrats are evaluating ways to slow down work, from forcing repeated quorum votes to refusing to show up for hearings in an effort to delay the confirmation process.

Democrats used one of the procedural tactics in their arsenal Tuesday by invoking the two-hour rule to keep committees from meeting. The rule prevents meetings two hours after the Senate convenes, or after 2 p.m.

McConnell sharply criticized Schumer’s “temper tantrum” during Wednesday morning floor remarks, saying the Democrat blocked the Intelligence Committee from holding a bipartisan session on election security and threatens similar sessions at Intel and the Armed Services Committee set for Wednesday afternoon.

“I guess we’ll find out whether the Democratic leader’s embarrassing theatrics were just a one-day matinee or whether he means to make this a series,” McConnell said.

Schumer quickly defended his tactics. He also established through the Senate parliamentarian that the chamber had never confirmed a Supreme Court nominee between July and November in a presidential election year.

“McConnell slammed on the brakes while tens of thousands of Americans died from Covid,” Schumer said. “And now he’s slamming his foot on the gas to approve a Supreme Court justice who could rip away Americans’ health care in the middle of a pandemic. Shame, shame.”

But even amid the heightened tensions, the two parties still may be able to negotiate deals later this year, said Sarah Binder, a congressional expert at the Brookings Institution.

The Senate passed an appropriations package and confirmed many of Trump’s lower court judges in 2018 despite Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s bitter Supreme Court confirmation.

“Lawmakers and leaders seem pretty good at compartmentalizing past battles, and moving on with their political and policy agendas,” she said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Nancy Ognanovich in Washington at nognanov@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bennett Roth at broth@bgov.com; Kyle Trygstad at ktrygstad@bgov.com

Top