Mitch McConnell’s Senate moves slowly. Even more slowly than the 100-member chamber often moves during the first 100 days of a new presidency.
The majority leader may have no choice. The Senate has 52 Republicans, so even on votes that require only a simple majority, the Kentucky Republican has little room to spare.
The 115th Congress is not even three months old, but already the vice president had to break a tie to get a nominee confirmed, the first time that’s happened. Two Republicans have already said they can’t vote for the GOP health care plan in its current form. And most of the Senate’s time so far has been consumed by considering administration nominees – and it’s still not finished.
McConnell is somewhat hamstrung by forces he can’t control. He can’t make any big moves until the House of Representatives acts. Meanwhile, the Senate is working through an unusually long backlog of President Donald Trump’s nominees.
McConnell is scheduled to appear Monday with Trump in the senator’s hometown, Louisville.
Senate Republican colleagues won’t openly criticize or question McConnell’s strategy. As the top Senate Republican he has enormous power to affect their agendas and committee assignments. But experts will.
“Right now, it looks like a mess,” said Bruce Oppenheimer, a professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University. “They badly need to show they can govern.”
Robert Steurer, a McConnell spokesman, countered that the Senate had “accomplished much this year on behalf of the American people” and “has worked several nights already this year and will likely continue to do so.”
McConnell may be seeing just where his Republican caucus is heading, whether it will become wind at Trump’s back or set its own pace. It’s too soon to tell.
Republicans have to defend only eight Senate seats next year, seven of them in states Trump carried. Ross Baker,a congressional expert at Rutgers University in New Jersey, sees signs that McConnell is giving them room to run so he can protect and build his majority.
“McConnell cares much more about his majority and building it than he does anything that Trump offers,” Baker said. “He is an institutionalist, and if he senses that Trump’s programs jeopardize his hold on the majority, he will give the word that it’s every man for himself.”
So the Senate plods. Last week, it scheduled no votes after Wednesday afternoon and it has none planned again until Tuesday. Next month, it plans a two-week break, just before funding for the federal government is scheduled to run out and health benefits will lapse for retired coal miners for the second time in four months, unless lawmakers act quickly.
Some House Republicans said they wished the Senate would pick up the pace.
“They may have to work a little bit harder over there,” said Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill. “That includes everybody in the Senate. They ought to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time.”
Others expressed a more patient view.
“We’ve both been working really hard,” said Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo. “There’s so much to do.”
“That’s the way they’re designed,” Rep. Tom Rice, R-S.C., said of the Senate. “It’s the saucer where the tea gets cooled.”
The early months of an administration have been the time to do big things: Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts in 1981, George W. Bush’s tax cuts 20 years later or Barack Obama’s economic stimulus in 2009. But for Trump, the first 100 days are shaping up to be a slog.
None of the big items he has proposed — a new health care law, tax and immigration overhauls or an infrastructure package — is an easy get.
“Very often, honeymoon periods are made of things that are easy to pass,” Oppenheimer said. “I don’t think the Trump administration has a list of agenda items which are low-hanging fruit.”
McConnell doesn’t have much wiggle room, because he can’t lose three votes on issues where Democrats stick together. Democrats uniformly oppose Republican efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare.
At least two Senate Republicans oppose the bill in its current form, Kentucky conservative Rand Paul and Maine moderate Susan Collins.
Nor has confirming Trump nominees always been easy.
The chamber has yet to vote on Sonny Perdue’s nomination for agriculture secretary, as well as Alexander Acosta as labor secretary. Both are expected to be confirmed.
Trump’s first choice for Labor, Andrew Puzder, withdrew after it became clear McConnell didn’t have the votes to confirm him.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos almost didn’t make it, either. McConnell lost the support of Collins and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, forcing Vice President Mike Pence to cast the deciding vote.
Collins also opposed Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt. Paul opposed CIA Director Mike Pompeo. Both were confirmed.
This week, the Senate Judiciary Committee will begin confirmation hearings for Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s Supreme Court nominee. While he’s been well received among senators, McConnell will need 60 votes to limit debate.