WASHINGTON — Senator Mitch McConnell has a ready comeback for Democrats who keep chanting “do your job” in hopes of pressuring Republicans to consider President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee. It is simply, “We are.”
With a little guile and an agenda of limited ambition, Mr. McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate majority leader, can point to a number of legislative victories, complete with Democratic support. And he is not shy about boasting.
“This week we have seen what can be accomplished on behalf of the American people with a Senate that’s back to work under the Republican majority,” Mr. McConnell declared in a floor speech on Wednesday, minutes before passage of a bipartisan energy bill and a day after the adoption of legislation to tighten aviation standards.
“We just passed two broad-based bills aimed at protecting consumers and modernizing our energy policies respectively, and both bills take important steps to bolster national security,” Mr. McConnell said. “The Republican-led Senate has made important strides to get the legislative process functioning again.”
On those issues and others, like the opioid crisis, Democrats are actually helping him, even if some are not happy about it. Last week, Mr. McConnell pushed through a bill to fight abuse of painkillers and heroin, adding to his growing list of bipartisan achievements.
Given the Senate rules, under which 60 votes are needed to break filibusters, Mr. McConnell cannot win adoption of anything unless Democrats refrain from his strategy when he was in the minority, which was to block virtually everything. Democrats complain that Mr. McConnell is passing versions of some of the same bills that he blocked when Democrats were in control.
Still, Democrats are going along, helping Mr. McConnell create a new sense of productivity in the Senate. But they are also betting that Republicans’ refusal to consider the nomination of Judge Merrick B. Garland to the Supreme Court will cement an image in voters’ minds of Republicans as the party of “no.”
Some Democrats say they would never want to share a reputation for obstruction. Others say Democrats are almost genetically incapable of refusing to deal, while a less kind analysis might say they cannot maintain the discipline in their ranks necessary to stop Mr. McConnell’s initiatives.
Whatever the motivation, in this hotly contested election year, Democrats are making a risky wager that it is better to share some credit for legislative progress, an approach that could undermine their mantra on the campaign trail that Senate Republicans, by refusing to consider the nominee for the court vacancy, are not doing their jobs.
Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, who is positioned to become the Democratic leader next year, said he believed no issue would matter more than the court. “All of these nice accomplishments will not get the Republicans well because they will be dwarfed by their obstruction on the Supreme Court,” he said. “So it’s a futile attempt.”
Republicans say that the better-functioning Senate is a testament to Mr. McConnell’s leadership, especially his willingness to give individual senators more freedom to offer amendments, and to his focus on legislation that has a chance of winning passage.
Asked why more legislation seemed to be moving, Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, did not break stride as she walked toward the internal subway system in the Capitol basement.
“Because the Republicans are in charge,” Ms. Collins said, “we have a true commitment to restoring the traditions of the Senate of open debate, amendments on bills.”
She also pointed to a major education bill negotiated last year by Senator Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, and Senator Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington. “There’s a huge difference,” Ms. Collins said. “Certainly, there has been Democratic cooperation, and I want to acknowledge and emphasize that, but it has been Republican leadership.”
Republicans, however, have struggled to pursue policies that strictly reflect their conservative priorities, not only because of Mr. Obama’s veto power, but also because of fierce internal disagreements that have forced Republican leaders, particularly in the House, to rely on Democratic votes. House Republicans have been unable to agree on a budget, for instance, because of opposition from hard-line conservatives.
Still, Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin was happy to turn the Democrats’ arguments around in praise of the Senate.
“They’re actually legislating,” Mr. Ryan said on Thursday at a news conference.
Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa and the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, who has taken the brunt of criticism over the refusal to convene confirmation hearings on Judge Garland, said the Democrats were wrong to think that voters would focus only on the fight over the Supreme Court vacancy.
“The court is one issue, and everything else is other issues,” Mr. Grassley said in an interview. “If Scalia hadn’t died,” he said, referring to Justice Antonin Scalia, “we’d still be doing the same thing we’re doing here.”
At the start of the current Congress, some Democrats pushed to block all of the Republicans’ legislative initiatives. That strategy might have denied some vulnerable incumbents the upbeat advertising that inevitably flows from having laws adopted, like the commercials in Ohio now touting a measure by Senator Rob Portman, a Republican, to fight the opioid epidemic.
Mr. Schumer said such an approach would have been futile. “We’re Democrats,” he said. “We cannot just block everything. We believe in government.”
Some centrist Democrats, like Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, whose policy goals are more likely to align with those of Republicans, have been among the biggest beneficiaries of the current atmosphere, passing bills like a repeal of a 40-year-old ban on crude oil exports.
Ms. Heitkamp, however, gave credit to the Democrats. “We have become a much more effective minority because a lot of the stuff that is getting done is a product of compromise,” she said. “It’s a product of sitting down and moving the packages that need to be moved.”
“It’s a much more effective minority than majority,” she added. “These are not the bills that would pass if Republicans were solely in charge.”
Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington State, a Democrat, who negotiated the recently adopted energy bill with Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, a Republican, said some of the recent accomplishments masked deeper dysfunction. In some cases, she said, Republicans were helping pass legislation they had previously blocked, while on other issues Republicans were still refusing to cooperate, particularly on nominees.
“Nominees or courts, it’s pretty frustrating,” Ms. Cantwell said. “They are over there holding up an appointee to the Export-Import Bank. They won’t reappoint somebody to the F.C.C. You can’t point to it and say it’s a good process, and then not follow it in other areas.”
But Mr. McConnell has been effective doing just that.
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