Senate Barely Legislating as Partisanship, Attendance Slow Work

  • The chamber has confirmed more nominees than passed bills
  • Pace may pick up as key committees advance bills this week

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Legislating in the Senate has slowed to a crawl so far this year as partisanship, absences and other distractions have thwarted substantial floor action.

The chamber’s business has so far largely been confined to confirming President Joe Biden’s nominees and dispensing with Republican-led challenges to administration regulation.

While the Senate has always been the more deliberative chamber by design, the current sluggish pace underscores the difficulty in making laws with a recently divided Congress. Protracted negotiations over government spending during the debt-limit stand-off stalled the appropriations process, and Republican objections to even routine nominations has prompted Democrats to expend more floor time considering judiciary and executive agency nominations.

“We’re at a period of split-party control with narrow majorities in both chambers, somewhat with an eye to 2024 presidential elections,” said Sarah Binder, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution. “The barriers to legislating are pretty steep.”

Democrats, who hold a slim majority, also face the challenge of mustering votes as a result of illness and other absences.

“Attendance drives a lot,” said Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). “We just don’t know any given day how we’re going to be doing. And it’s a reason why this has been been hit and miss.”

The pace may be about to pick up as Senate committees tee up high-impact, bipartisan bills that could hit the floor as soon as this summer and fall.

Photographer: Ting Shen/Bloomberg
Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said attendance is a big factor in how much Senate gets done.

Even if the chamber increases its legislative activity, disputes between the parties that slowed action in the first half of year aren’t going away. If the Senate agrees on certain must-pass appropriations and other bills, leaders still face difficult negotiations with House Republicans eager to plant their conservative mark on federal spending and policy.

“I wish we could do more,” said Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee Chairman Sherrod Brown, a Democrat facing a tough re-election race in Ohio while managing bills that could see floor action. “The extremists in the House of Representatives make things a whole lot harder.”

More Nominations

The Senate so far this year has confirmed more executive and judicial nominees than it has passed bills. Most legislation that has won Senate approval were either uncontroversial or popular measures passed without objection or were Republican-led challenges to Biden administration regulations or new laws enacted by the D.C. government.

Notable exceptions included suspending the government’s borrowing limit until 2025 (Public Law 118-5), reauthorizing firefighter grants (S. 870), and repealing the authorization of military force in Iraq (S. 316). Senators could also sign off on a tax treaty with Chile this week.

Must-pass legislation that include statutory deadlines are the most likely to reach the floor in coming months.

The Senate Appropriations Committee will start moving spending bills on Thursday, starting with less controversial ones that would fund the Departments of Veterans Affairs and Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, and military construction. They’ll also consider top-line spending figures for the remaining subcommittees to divvy up, a process delayed by disputes with House Republicans.

The National Defense Authorization Act is farther along. The Senate Armed Services Committee plans to mark-up its version of the annual military policy bill before the two-week Independence Day recess that starts Friday. Congress considers it a must-pass bill because it sets troop pay as well as weapons and geostrategic policy, and it has passed every year for more than six decades.

Other key reauthorizations are farther off. Status-quo extensions for six months or a year may be more likely options to allow more time for talks.

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee’s plans to advance legislation (S. 1939) reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration last week were scuttled as lawmakers disputed possible changes to pilot training and the number of flights allowed out of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

Senators are also debating the contours of another five-year Farm Bill, which senior lawmakers hope to complete this year.

Sen. John Boozman (Ark.), the top Republican on the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, said “it’s going to be a while before” that bill comes to the floor.

“The good news is most people want to get a Farm Bill done,” Boozman said.

Bills Advancing

A number of measures with wider bipartisan support are advancing. The Senate Banking Committee on Wednesday will hold its first mark-up of legislation since 2019 to move bills clawing back compensation for executives of failed banks and cracking down on opioid trafficking (S. 1271). The panel has only had nomination markups in recent years.

Senators are seeking a path forward on rail safety legislation (S. 576) in the aftermath of a toxic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. Seven Republicans are on record supporting the bill, which the Commerce Committee advanced to the floor last month.

“We think we have the votes, but we can’t name all 60 at this point,” said Brown, the rail bill’s sponsor, referring to the threshold to advance most legislation on the Senate floor.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s (D-N.Y.) push for another measure boosting competition with China is still in its early stages. “Hopefully we will get there,” said Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.).

Schumer will lay out his framework for legislation regulating artificial intelligence at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Wednesday morning. But the actual legislative text senators hope to pass by the end of next year hasn’t been introduced. Senators are planning two more classified briefings on the topic next month after receiving one last week.

“There is risk in moving before you fundamentally understand the problems,” Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), who’s working with Schumer on the AI push. “There’s also risk of inaction, and we have to balance those two things.”

— With assistance from Maeve Sheehey and Nancy Ognanovich.

To contact the reporter on this story: Zach C. Cohen in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bennett Roth at; George Cahlink at

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