Dead-End Bills Aimed at 2020 Elections Become Focus in Congress

(Bloomberg) -- House Democrats are using their majority to push gun-control, campaign-finance and voting-rights legislation. Senate Republicans are advancing abortion restrictions while trying to put Democrats on the spot with a vote on climate change.

None of the proposals stand a chance of getting through a divided Congress. Instead, the measures are designed to corner lawmakers from the opposing party with tough votes that could be used against them in 2020 campaigns.

With the new Congress under way, Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are already using legislative votes to get an early start on jockeying for advantage in the 2020 elections. That’s an early sign the window is closing for passing bipartisan legislation to send to President Donald Trump.

Dead-End Bills Aimed at 2020 Elections Become Focus in Congress

While both parties often use control of a chamber of Congress to work on winning elections as much as making law, it’s unusual for that to become the chief focus so far ahead of election day.

"We have an opportunity to demonstrate to the American people what a Democratic government would look like,” House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth, a Kentucky Democrat, said in an interview. “Politically we put them in a very difficult position.”

McConnell, asked last week if he has met with Pelosi to find common ground, said there’s been no discussion so far of work on compromise legislation. “We haven’t yet, but I wouldn’t say that there won’t be some things that we can agree on,” the Kentucky Republican told reporters.

‘Politician Protection Plan’

This week, House Democrats plan to pass an anti-corruption and voting rights bill they promised in last year’s elections, but the measure stands little chance in the Senate. McConnell has dismissed it as the “Democrat Politician Protection Plan.”

In 2020 contests, the White House and control of both chambers of Congress will be in play. In the House, leaders are eyeing the 40 GOP-held seats that switched hands in 2018 to help give Democrats their majority. In the Senate, where Republicans hold a 53-47 majority, Democrats have a chance to take the chamber because 22 GOP-held seats will be on the ballot, versus just 12 held by Democrats.

About a dozen Democratic lawmakers in the Senate and House are running for president or are considering running, and their voting records will be closely scrutinized.

“It’s early for messaging to be the predominant form of communication,” said Rutgers University political science professor Ross Baker. “They’re already trying to put members of the other party on the spot or providing cover for their own members.”

In the House, the agenda so far is driven largely by measures Democrats promised in the 2018 elections that are opposed by most Republicans. That includes two gun-control measures to bolster background checks that cleared the chamber last week, and this week’s planned vote on an anti-corruption bill that includes stricter disclosure of donors to super-political action committees and public financing for campaigns.

‘Dreamer’ Legislation

House Democrats also are drafting legislation that would provide deportation protections for young undocumented immigrants known as “dreamers” that Senate Republicans and Trump have only considered in the context of broader legislation to fund a border wall. The lead Democratic sponsor, Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard of California, said her measure will be “much more progressive” than past proposals by covering more of the young immigrants.

Democratic leaders are under pressure to advance even more progressive legislation embraced by many of the top 2020 Democratic presidential contenders, although they haven’t committed to do that yet. Among the measures are “Medicare for all” that would replace almost all private health insurance, and a “Green New Deal” to mitigate climate change -- a proposal advocated by Democrats including freshman Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.

McConnell plans a vote this year on the Green New Deal climate proposal, which he has repeatedly mocked, saying the plan to cut carbon emissions would hurt the economy. The right-leaning American Action Forum said it could cost as much as $93 trillion over 10 years.

Dead-End Bills Aimed at 2020 Elections Become Focus in Congress

“Every member of this body will have a chance to go on record, loud and clear,” McConnell of Kentucky said Wednesday on the Senate floor. “Do our Democratic colleagues really support this fantasy novel masquerading as public policy? Do they really want to completely upend Americans’ lives to enact some grand socialist vision?”

His effort has Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer scrambling for alternative climate-change legislation to give Democrats in the chamber something to support that can’t be so easily converted into a TV attack ad. Among other things, he said he’s planning a resolution that would say climate change is real, caused by humans and deserves immediate action in Congress.

‘Not a Debate’

“This is not a debate,” Schumer said of the planned vote on the Green New Deal. “It’s a diversion. It’s a sham.”

In another action, McConnell last week attempted to push to the Senate floor a measure that would sanction doctors who fail to use the same “professional skill” to save a child born alive after a failed abortion attempt as it would for “any other child born alive at the same gestational age.” It was blocked from consideration on a 53-44 vote, but put Democrats on the record in opposition.

Amid the early signs of gridlock, there have been a few small measures embraced by both parties to come out of a new Congress initially consumed with ending a 35-day government shutdown. Last week, the House approved and sent to Trump a measure that would permanently extend a $900-million-a-year conservation fund.

Congress will need to agree later this year to increase the federal debt limit, pass spending legislation to avoid a government shutdown when the next fiscal year begins Oct. 1, and perhaps raise budget caps. Lawmakers also will be asked to approve Trump’s trade agreement with Canada and Mexico.

The area seen as having most potential for bipartisanship -- a big-ticket plan to build new roads and bridges -- is on hold due to lack of consensus over how to finance it.

With Pelosi facing pressure from newcomer progressive Democrats, Senate GOP leaders said the speaker will have little ability to compromise.

‘Gotcha’ Bills

“Her left flank is going to be all over her,” Senator John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Republican leader, said in an interview. “It’s going to make it hard for her to find any sort of common ground with Republicans either in the House or the Senate because her left flank wants to just defeat the president.”

House Democratic leaders say they’re offering bills that are substantive, broadly embraced by the public and may even pass the Senate if McConnell allows votes -- in contrast to “messaging” bills House Republicans often put to votes to satisfy their core supporters when they controlled the chamber.

“In the past what Republicans have done is put forth ‘gotcha’ messaging bills that they don’t expect to pass because they don’t have broad support among the electorate,” said Hakeem Jeffries of New York, one of Pelosi’s deputies. “That’s the significant difference between what they did and what we are doing right now.”

Some House Democrats said Republicans don’t want to compromise on much, and it would be best to push the Democratic agenda through the House with an eye toward appealing to GOP senators’ constituents to help yield a few breakthroughs. Ocasio-Cortez calls that an “inside-outside strategy.”

“They clearly are not receptive to any form of negotiation,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “McConnell says jump and they say, ‘How high?’ From what I see there’s been nothing that we’ve done on the inside that’s been able to make them change.”

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