Senate moving swiftly? It happens when lawmakers can do it

Senate moving swiftly? It happens when lawmakers can do it

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WASHINGTON (AP) — For most of this year, the hyper-partisan Senate has been working at a glacial pace. Now, with vacation beckoning, the Senate is trying another, faster gear.

It's not exactly warp speed, but in rapid succession this week the chamber has confirmed a new FBI director, sent President Donald Trump a key veterans health bill, and cleared a batch of lower profile nominations that have been bottled up by Democrats.

In the Capitol, it's known as the jet fumes effect. Desperate to leave the Washington swamp, lawmakers become much more docile, lifting obstacles to nominations and dropping demands on legislation.

This year, the burst of activity is all the more striking because the Senate floor has been such a dead zone; the chamber has spent weeks at a time doing little more than plodding confirmations of Trump administration nominees.

One factor in the flurry of activity is a sense of detente now that there is a pause in the imbroglio over health care. Leading up to last week's failed Senate attempt to pass legislation to repeal and replace the Obama health law, passions ran high in the chamber and Democrats were in no mood to cooperate on anything.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Wednesday that the Senate was working to complete a bill on Food and Drug Administration user fees and confirm additional nominees. And, with Republicans and Democrats in agreement, the Senate late Tuesday approved a pair of bills addressing problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs, including a $3.9 billion emergency spending package to fix a looming budget crisis.

In Trump's Washington, such progress often gets overlooked.

"I heard one of our colleagues last week stand in front of the nation and say, nothing ever gets done," lamented No. 2 Senate Republican John Cornyn of Texas. "Well, we're doing some important things. The veterans choice program, the FDA Reauthorization bill. These are important life-saving bills that are being passed on a bipartisan basis."

For months, as Republicans struggled to find their bearings on health care, the only major bills to pass were a leftover government-wide spending measure and bills to roll back more than a dozen Obama-era regulations. More recently came legislation, signed into law by Trump on Wednesday, to strengthen economic sanctions on Russia, Iran and North Korea.

The House recessed last Friday. Last month, McConnell — under pressure from restive junior Republicans — announced the Senate would stay in session for the first two weeks of August. Now it's looking like senators will be set free as soon as Thursday. Most of Wednesday's work occurred behind the scenes, though the chamber voted along party lines to confirm a Trump nominee to the National Labor Relations Board, Marvin Kaplan.

In the sprint to the exits, however, much is being left for the fall. McConnell had hoped to pass legislation to increase the government's borrowing cap, or debt limit, before the August break. And none of the 12 annual spending bills has come to the floor, either, which means a stopgap spending bill will be needed next month to prevent a politically disastrous government shutdown with the start of the new budget year Oct. 1.

Democratic objections to Trump nominees prompted McConnell to devote extended stretches of the Senate schedule to procedural votes on personnel. Democrats often forced McConnell to run out the clock on nominee after nominee, even those who won unanimous approval in initial committee votes. When criticized for stalling tactics, Democrats often invoked Judge Merrick Garland, former President Barack Obama's nominee to the Supreme Court last year, whom McConnell wouldn't allow to advance.

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