Congress screeches to halt ahead of elections

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell doesn’t want Congress to address any controversial issues this session.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell doesn’t want Congress to address any controversial issues this session. AP

Remember that first branch of American government?

With the attention to the presidential race and the partisan fight over President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, Congress is an afterthought.

The legislative branch isn’t a pretty picture. In the House, the right-wing caucus is stymying Speaker Paul Ryan’s plan to pass a budget. In the Senate, where the only priority of Republicans is to retain their imperiled majority, lawmakers are scrambling to come up with small measures to put on the April and May schedule.

Yet a few substantive items might be enacted. And both sides will try to posture for maximum political advantage in the November elections.

Moreover, Congress is teeing up big stuff for a certain post-election lame-duck session.

In the regular session, the pressure will be on the Republican majority, whose members are nervous about the prospect of Donald Trump winning the presidential nomination.

The budget battle is more symbolic because the spending levels were set last year in a deal between the president and the Republican Congress.

But Ryan, the new speaker, who has criticized Democrats for failing to pass a budget, feels his credibility is on the line. The right-wing Freedom Caucus, which pressured the previous speaker to resign last year, forced Ryan to pull the measure for now.

Even if the speaker revives it next month, it may die in the Senate. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell doesn’t want to deal with any controversial issue that could complicate the re-election bids of more than a half-dozen senators who fear they’re running in an inhospitable environment.

Republicans now control the Senate, 54 seats to 46; if Democrats retain the White House, a loss of four seats would switch control.

McConnell’s juggling act explains the party’s refusal to hold hearings on Garland. They are losing that fight with the public, but any vote on Obama’s pick to replace Justice Antonin Scalia would cause more tensions in the party.

The congressional GOP strategy for the next six months will be a variation of the old Muhammad Ali rope-a-dope, papering over the party’s schisms.

The minority, the Democrats, have their own split: between the liberal passion of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ grass-roots movement and the pragmatic realpolitik of Hillary Clinton, the likely nominee. The plan is to offer measures on appropriations bills that both Democratic camps support, which will never be accepted by the House.

Thus there’s much private focus on a lame-duck session, which is common after presidential elections won by the rival party; it occurred in 1980, 2000 and 2008, and there were some achievements.

If Trump, or Sen. Ted Cruz, wins the presidency it would be hard to imagine much movement. With Clinton, it could be different.

Obama and Ryan would like to secure passage of the Pacific Rim trade pact, though most Democrats are opposed to it, and it isn’t clear there would be sufficient backing from House Republicans. Clinton, in a flip-flop, has opposed the deal, but it’s assumed that she wouldn’t stand in the way.

As president-elect, she also would be hard-pressed to undercut Obama’s choice of the qualified Garland. There is already speculation about Clinton’s potential nominees if she wins the White House. The names include Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a liberal favorite.

The prospect that Clinton might try to move the Supreme Court to the left could make Garland an attractive option for Republicans.