Little hope for bipartisanship with Lynch, budget ahead

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WASHINGTON – The sour start to the new Senate’s year appears likely to continue – with the unexpected partisan blowup over a human trafficking bill and its abortion provision seeming to end the last chance for a broad, bipartisan vote before the recess at the end of the month.

That’s assuming the partisan standoff over the inclusion of language restricting use of funds for abortions – the Hyde Amendment – an effort by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to limit debate on the bill, will come up short of the 60 needed votes Tuesday morning.

Then it’s time for another contentious floor debate: The confirmation of Loretta Lynch as attorney general.

“It is interesting that this is a week when we have been engaged in a dialogue about human trafficking, which is a serious and significant issue, obviously,” Sen. Tim Kaine said Thursday. “But it, along with many other issues, demands a strong Justice Department, and a strong Justice Department is not possible without a confirmed attorney general as a leader.”

The Virginia Democrat is one of many who have come to the floor to decry the fact that it has now been north of four months since President Barack Obama nominated Lynch.

“Today there are critical issues facing this country – urgent issues facing this country – that deal with the relationship between our communities and law enforcement agencies. If there were ever a time when we would want to have a confirmed attorney general in office without question marks surrounding when that confirmation will take place, it would be now,” Kaine said.

While her nomination is expected to reach the Senate floor, Lynch could have the bare minimum of votes in support, with much of the Republican opposition stemming from opposition to last year’s executive actions on immigration.

Lynch may well get clear of the 50 vote total with a number of Republican senators still sitting on the fence, but Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., may want to make sure to stay nearby.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, pushed his fellow Republicans to block Lynch from even getting out of the Judiciary Committee and has suggested she should not even be brought to the floor for a vote, citing her responses to questions about Obama’s executive authority.

Given his past statements about the advice and consent power of the Senate being one that should be used to check executive overreach, Cruz is not expected to allow Lynch to get an up-or-down vote on confirmation without running through the process of cutting off a filibuster by invoking cloture. Other Republican senators will no doubt want to use the Lynch confirmation process as a way of expressing their views on the Justice Department, as well.

Of course, since Senate Democrats used the “nuclear option” to effectively change the Senate’s rules on nominations, executive branch positions have no longer needed 60 votes to invoke cloture, so a simple majority will suffice. And in fact, a senior GOP aide told CQ Roll Call that the way the precedent has been interpreted, Biden, acting in his capacity as president of the Senate, could break a tie on a cloture vote.

It doesn’t get any easier or less partisan from there. Senate Budget Chairman Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., is expected to mark up the fiscal 2016 budget resolution during the second part of the Senate’s week and it should be on the floor the following week.

Democrats have made calls for Enzi and his fellow Republicans to move forward with a bipartisan blueprint, but they are quick to concede that they do not expect that to happen. The ranking member of the Democratic caucus on the panel, Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont, of what he planned to see in the GOP blueprint, and just how contentious the proceedings might be.

“I expect that my Republican colleagues will bring forth a budget that I can only refer to as the Robin Hood principle in reverse,” Sanders said. “(Cutting) programs that the elderly, the children, the sick, the poor, working families desperately depend upon.

“It will likely be a budget that gives more tax breaks to the rich and large corporations, to the people who need it the least.”