WASHINGTON — Congress increasingly is being defined by what it’s not doing this election year.
The Senate returns this week with a strong majority of Republicans saying no to any consideration of President Barack Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court. No hearings, no vote and, for some lawmakers, not even a meeting with federal appeals court Judge Merrick Garland.
Republicans, led by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., insist that the decision on filling the court vacancy rests with the next president after voters have their say in November’s election.
A bipartisan bill to aid Flint, Michigan, where the city’s 100,000 residents are struggling with lead-contaminated water is being blocked by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who wants to ensure that the money is paid for without adding to the deficit. The dispute over Flint has snagged a far-reaching measure on energy.
In the House, where lawmakers return from their break April 12, conservative opposition probably will make it impossible to pass a budget, in what would be a major embarrassment for Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis. A GOP proposal to aid debt-stricken Puerto Rico has drawn criticism from House Democrats and conservatives, raising doubts about Congress’ ability to resolve the issue.
The latest Gallup Poll shows public approval of Congress at an abysmal 13 percent. Yet, through a half-dozen state primaries, no incumbent lawmaker has lost.
A look at the issues in limbo in Congress:
THE FIGHT OVER GARLAND
Garland plans to meet with 11 senators in the week ahead, including two Republicans. Democrats are maintaining election-year pressure on the GOP for blocking the usual Senate committee hearings and vote on a high court nominee.
Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and John Boozman, R-Ark., are set to sit down with Garland on Tuesday. Collins is one of just two Republicans out of 54 who are open to hearings and a vote on Garland; Boozman is up for re-election this year. Eager to keep the fight in the news, Democrats say there might be 50 more Garland meetings with senators in the coming weeks, and they plan repeated Senate floor speeches on the issue.
Over the Senate’s two-week recess, both sides pushed their messages back home, but Democrats were particularly aggressive as senators held news conferences and wrote newspaper columns. Swing-state Republicans facing re-election were top targets, including Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Rob Portman of Ohio and Iowa’s Chuck Grassley, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, responsible for holding hearings on judicial nominees.
Garland has met with just one Republican: Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk. He is embroiled in a difficult re-election fight and has said the Senate should provide “rational, adult, open-minded consideration” of Garland, an Illinois native.
At least 15 GOP senators have said they are willing to meet Garland, though most oppose letting the confirmation process progress. Only Collins and Kirk are open to hearings and a vote. Under intense conservative pressure, Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas backtracked late last week, saying no to hearings and a vote after signaling support days earlier.
It’s been years since Congress approved each of the annual appropriations bills – the 12 measures that fund the budgets of agencies and departments. The new normal is an all-encompassing bill at the end of the year. Republicans leaders such as McConnell want to get process back on track, and the Senate Appropriations Committee is expected to start the week of April 11.
It’ll be a test for the Senate, and pitfalls await, including potential fights over immigration, environmental regulations, gun rights and display of the Confederate flag.
In the House, GOP leaders are still trying to win approval of a broader budget plan that’s usually a precursor to action on the spending bills. Chances are iffy at best. It’s not clear what the path forward on the appropriations bills will be.
House Republicans unveiled a plan to help Puerto Rico with its $70 billion debt, but a draft bill by the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, GOP Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah, was rejected by Democrats, GOP conservatives and Puerto Rican officials.
The proposal would create a five-person board designed to audit the territory’s government and create fiscal plans and budget measures – steps Republicans say are necessary for Puerto Rico to get its economy back on track. The board would have the authority to enact the plan if the territory’s governor and legislature failed to do so.
The draft would not give Puerto Rico the broad bankruptcy authority it has asked for, but would allow the oversight board to decide whether debt restructuring is necessary.
The House Republican Study Committee, a group of around 170 conservatives, expressed concerns about the debt restructuring provisions. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and other Democrats said the oversight board would be too controlling.
Puerto Rico’s government has defaulted on $37 million in interest on bonds issued by Puerto Rico’s Infrastructure Financing Authority, as well as nearly $60 million in Public Finance Corporation bonds. The bonds are not protected by the U.S. territory’s government. Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla has warned there is no money for future payments, including $400 million due in May in bonds issued by the Government Development Bank.
Bishop said he will continue to work on the bill to gain consensus.
Advocates for a criminal justice overhaul are hoping Congress will move legislation in both chambers before the summer, though the effort has run into roadblocks in the Senate.
The GOP caucus is split over a bipartisan bill that would give judges the discretion to impose lesser sentences than federal mandatory minimums and eliminate mandatory life sentences for three-time, nonviolent drug offenders.
Some conservatives, including Arkansas’ Tom Cotton and GOP presidential candidate Ted Cruz of Texas, say the bill could release violent offenders from prison. It’s a charge that their GOP colleagues backing the bill strongly deny.
Senators are now rewriting parts of the bill, but even with the expected changes, it’s unclear whether McConnell will choose to move forward.