It’s Unanimous: In the Senate, Neither Party Consents to the Other’s Ideas


In the Senate, the term “U.C.” stands for “unanimous consent” — usually verbal shorthand for an agreement by all senators to quickly take up and pass a bill. But with the November elections just months away, it might as well stand for: “You see? Our political opponents are dead wrong on this issue.”

With the focus of the political universe turning to the upcoming fight for control of Congress and the White House, lawmakers are spending most of their time not on real legislative work but in trying to corner their rivals on hot-button issues.

On the Senate floor in recent days, those efforts have often taken the form of unanimous consent requests that are designed to fail, thus spotlighting one party or another’s refusal to agree to a policy proposal.

Such procedural skirmishes provide a shortcut to Senate showdowns on wedge issues or subjects on which one party believes it has the upper hand. That was the case on Tuesday, when Democrats attempted to quickly bring up and pass a bill that would outlaw gun bump stocks after the Supreme Court last week struck down a ban on the devices.

Like similar recent maneuvers, Democrats knew the U.C. attempt would fail because of a Republican objection, but they tried anyway in a bid to give themselves a talking point against the G.O.P.

“What today’s bill does is return things to the status quo set by Donald Trump, saying bump stocks are dangerous and should be prohibited,” Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, said on Tuesday. “Senate Republicans by and large supported Donald Trump’s ban on bump stocks back then, so they should support this bill today.”

They didn’t.

“I will stick with the court,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, who said he would prefer to align himself with the Supreme Court ruling than be steamrolled by Democrats. “It’s all political posturing for the election.”

The outcome of the quick back and forth was a classic of the genre. In the bump stock case, the tussle was over the Supreme Court’s decision to invalidate the ban on a device that allows semiautomatic weapons to fire more rapidly. The Trump administration imposed the ban after a 2017 mass shooting at a Las Vegas concert.

Last week, the U.C. battlegrounds were Supreme Court ethics issues and in vitro fertilization. In coming weeks, there are likely to be more abortion rights conflicts and other topics rising in the heated campaign environment.

Here’s how it works: A member of one party takes the floor to ask unanimous consent — meaning the agreement of all 100 senators — to immediately take up and pass this bill or that measure without debate, often since something has occurred to give it urgency.

The senator making the request lays out the case for the legislation even though it is extremely unlikely to speed through. A senator on the opposing side is allowed to to lay out the opposition before ultimately objecting and blocking the effort in a chamber where it is nearly impossible to move expeditiously if anyone balks.

“Objection is heard,” the presiding officer then declares. And that’s that. Cue scores of news releases highlighting the effort — and the move to block it.

While it may seem like a waste of time and energy, the stagecraft allows the parties to show where the battle lines are drawn on a particular subject. Despite the limitations, some lawmakers embrace the strategy, particularly since votes on bills and amendments have declined in the Senate in recent years.

“The U.C.s are the only means we have to draw the contrast and to put political markers in the ground to show that Republicans are blocking common-sense steps to prevent gun violence,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut. “Looking from a practical standpoint, U.C.s may seem futile, but Republicans have to put it on the line. And they take very little time to do.”

To Mr. Blumenthal’s latter point, the maneuver is streamlined, much faster than taking the cumbersome, time-consuming procedural steps of forcing roll call votes on similar politically charged issues. Those votes can take days to set into motion but have the advantage of forcing each senator to weigh in rather than one lawmaker registering blanket opposition.

Democrats considered their in vitro protection bill consequential enough to hold a doomed test vote last week and force every Republican to record their position; all but two opposed it. Trying to soften the blow, Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, made a unanimous consent request for the Senate to instead pass a Republican version of an in vitro fertilization protection measure that Democrats consider woefully inadequate. An objection was heard.

“Senate Democrats don’t want a protection of I.V.F.,” Mr. Cruz asserted after his legislation was blocked. “They want a campaign issue.”

On another unanimous consent bid last week, Republicans blocked a Supreme Court ethics measure pushed by Democrats. Democrats had been facing pressure from progressive court activists to become more aggressive in their efforts to step up oversight of the court and the failed effort helped quiet some demands.

Democrats have been mixing up their efforts in recent weeks to highlight divisions with Republicans, forcing votes and making failed U.C. requests on border policy, abortion rights and now gun safety with bump stocks. The effort is not lost on Republicans.

“This is Week 3 of Chuck Schumer focusing on fake problems instead of real problems,” J.D. Vance, Republican of Ohio, told reporters on Monday.

Mr. Schumer has not shied from acknowledging the political implications of his recent legislative initiatives on the floor, but he also said the bump stock bill sponsored by Senator Martin Heinrich, Democrat of New Mexico, should earn consensus support given that the ban was already in place with the backing of both parties.

“Passing a bill banning bump stocks,” he said, “should be the work of five minutes.”



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