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Up in the Air: Senate Unsure of Next Move as Priorities Pile Up

The Senate has returned to session with a curious lack of focus on what they will debate or vote on in the coming weeks. To be sure, they have a host of possibilities, but no clear path forward. The schedule for today includes a series of planned speeches and a vote on “a judge.” But the rest of the week? Wide open.

One of the problems is the lack of a full complement of Senators. By now, some expected West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin to have chosen an interim replacement for the late Robert Byrd. But the confusion surrounding a potential special election has delayed that announcement, probably until after a special legislative session that starts on Thursday that would set the terms for a proposed November special election. Until then, Democrats have 58 members, and on a couple bills, that may not be enough to invoke cloture, sadly enough. In particular, the standalone unemployment insurance extension and the FinReg conference report look one vote short, and Byrd’s replacement could provide that one vote in both cases. Without him or her, the outcome would be unclear. David Herszenhorn reported today that Harry Reid promised a crowd “We’re going to finish that conference report!” (now there’s a campaign slogan), but offered no sense of the timing.

There are other possibilities. The Senate could debate and confirm Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court; that’s probably a more assured vote. But they must wait for the Judiciary Committee to report out the nomination, so moving to that this week is unlikely. There’s a war supplemental that has been ping-ponged back to the Senate, with some domestic spending (about $20 billion for retaining teachers, adding to Pell grants, youth summer jobs, and other purposes) attached. The cleaner version of that received 67 votes back in late May, but if the Senate cannot pass unemployment insurance, who knows what they’ll do with the war bill. There’s also a defense authorization bill waiting for passage, one which includes a legislative repeal of the military’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy. And there’s a small business lending bill, which the Senate has already begun to take up.

And there’s a possibility that they will move to a bill they haven’t previously taken up. Some Senators have expressed a willingness to get the climate and energy debate started, though I doubt that would happen this week. The DISCLOSE Act needs to pass soon to have any relevance to the midterm elections, and a July vote is planned. The DREAM Act has received more attention of late. There are literally hundreds of bills from the House that could move, from a cybercrime bill to a food safety bill.

Senate aides don’t have much information to give on the schedule right now, but we should know more by the end of the day or early tomorrow. In the meantime, just typing out that long list shows how many priorities the Senate could move to pass, suggesting that the August recess would be completely superfluous at this time.

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David Dayen

David Dayen