Congress Returns to McConnell’s Legislative ‘Graveyard’

The U.S. Capitol at sunset in Washington. (AP photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Facing criticism that the Senate has become little more than what one member calls an “expensive lunch club,” Congress returns for the fall session Monday with pressure mounting on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to address gun violence, election security and other issues.

The Kentucky Republican has promised a “Grim Reaper” strategy focused on burying House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s legislative priorities, but without a robust Republican agenda it could prove unsatisfying for lawmakers facing restive voters before the 2020 elections.

President Donald Trump has not explained what he would like to see Congress accomplish, particularly on gun control, and McConnell is reluctant to venture too far, beyond confirming the White House’s administrative and judicial nominees.

That leaves big-ticket legislative victories highly unlikely as Pelosi’s Democratic House churns out bills, the Republican Senate takes a pass, and the legislative calendar folds into campaign season.

“Senate Democrats must work to increase pressure on Leader McConnell to stop burying bills he doesn’t like in his graveyard and to get the Senate working again,” Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said in a letter to colleagues.

One test of voter mood will come in this Tuesday’s special election in North Carolina, where the Democrat for an open House seat, Marine veteran Dan McCready, faces Republican Dan Bishop, in a contest both parties see as tossup. Trump is swooping in Monday for a campaign rally.

As legislating makes way for campaigning, Sarah Binder, a professor at George Washington University, said by email, “The challenge for both parties though is that they really do need something to deliver to voters in 2020.”

Trump wants Congress to pass the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade deal. Congress needs to fund the government by the end of the month or risk another federal shutdown. But the president roiled talks by shifting $3.6 billion from military projects for the border wall and fallout continues over immigrant detentions. Questions of impeachment hover.

Gun regulation, perhaps more than other issues, is putting pressure on the Senate to act.

August was bookended by devastating mass shootings across three cities that killed dozens and injured scores more.

Big business is stepping in to fill the void, with Walmart the latest to announce limits on some ammunition sales. While a House-passed background checks bill stalled in the Senate, McConnell says he expects the White House to offer something.

“We’re under discussion about what to do on the gun issue,” McConnell said on the Hugh Hewitt radio show.

McConnell has made it clear that he won’t make any moves without Trump’s commitment to sign the bills into law. But the president has flip-flopped on guns, first suggesting he’d be open to background checks legislation or other measures to try to stem gun violence, only to backtrack after speaking to the National Rifle Association. McConnell is trying to avoid a politically uncomfortable situation of Republicans joining Democrats to pass bills, and seeing Trump reject them. This has led to accusations that Republicans are placing politics before the good of the nation.

Against this backdrop, McConnell described what he wants to see before considering any guns legislation: “If the president is in favor of a number of things that he has discussed openly and publicly, and I know that if we pass it it’ll become law, I’ll put it on the floor.”

Senators from both parties have been meeting privately and with the White House on possible areas of agreement. Trump said he was talking with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who has a bipartisan background checks bill with Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania that has failed in previous votes.

Toomey, who said he has spoken several times with Trump during Congress’ summer break, said the president has been more consistent in his support for expanding background checks than people give him credit for.

“The president has a real interest in doing something in this area,” Toomey said. Several Republican senators are also interested, he said, but “it’s hard to say how this will turn out.”

Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., also involved in talks, including with White House adviser Ivanka Trump, said he is encouraged that the president may be interested in some narrow efforts, including the bipartisan bill with Toomey. It would require federal authorities to alert state officials when people trying to buy guns are denied by the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

Before lawmakers left town for the six-week summer recess, senators from both parties bemoaned the way the world’s most deliberative body has become what Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., calls a pricey lunch club. Murphy too is working on gun legislation.

“I miss the Senate that used to spend the odd-year really legislating and really working on policy,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who is up for reelection. “We seem now to be caught up in a constant campaign, and that is, I think, a disservice to the American people.”

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate health committee, is working on a bipartisan package of bills to reduce health-care costs. He said there’s more happening than the public often sees in the endless loop of political and partisan fighting.

“We always have those two screens going on,” said Alexander, who is retiring at the end of his term. “While things could be much better in the United States Senate, there’s a lot being done.”

McConnell takes pride in stopping Democrats’ agenda and is incorporating the “Grim Reaper” role in his own reelection campaign for 2020. The Republican leader, who suffered a fractured shoulder in a fall in early August, has been recovering at home in Kentucky but was expected to return to open the Senate on Monday.

Asked about the Senate agenda for fall, his office had little to add. A spokesman sent a memo that included a long list of administrative nominees up for Senate confirmation.

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