Has The Senate Found It's More Fun To Be Functional? : It's All Politics If this Senate is getting some traction, it's not yet a threat to anyone's legislative hall of fame. Much higher hurdles loom, including highway funding, spending bills and the debt ceiling.

Has The Senate Found It's More Fun To Be Functional?

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The most remarkable thing about Loretta Lynch's confirmation is that it happened. In other words, the Senate completed a piece of normal business - two pieces, actually, since it also passed that human trafficking bill. Congress has functioned so badly for years that this counts as news. We've brought in NPR senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving to pose a question about this. Hi, Ron.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Steve.

INSKEEP: And the question is, is the Senate actually working?

ELVING: Yes, on one level. But you could also say that both of these votes should have taken place months ago. So they just got their January business done. They got delayed, as you know, by a partisan standoff over a side issue, a squabble over abortion funding. But that's what we've come to expect from the Senate for several years now. And the deal that got these votes freed up so they could actually happen this week, that could be seen as a kind of green shoot of hope. It's like a new spirit ripening with the warmer weather.

INSKEEP: OK. Well, I'm remembering that Mitch McConnell, the new Republican leader of the Senate, had indicated that he wanted the institution to work. He was described as a fierce partisan, sure, but a man of the institution and a practical man who wanted to get things done. Are there other signs that things are getting done?

ELVING: Yes, I think you can say that. Next week, the Senate's going to approve an Iran review - that is, an Iran nuclear deal review...


ELVING: A bill that they worked out in committee - Bob Corker, the Republican chairman there, working with Democrats. They got a 19-to-nothing approval vote in that committee, and it's going to go through in the Senate as well. The Republican resistance, in parts of the Senate, to the doc fix - that's a Medicare issue that's a chronic problem that's been coming around for years and years - they got it fixed in the House through a compromise. And the Senate miraculously managed to approve that. And also, we've seen on trade that the Senate appears to be ready to give the president fast-track negotiating authority on trade deals. And we'll see that probably happen later this spring.

INSKEEP: What's making the difference in a Republican Senate?

ELVING: Well, of course, if you talk to the Republicans - and they were out on the floor talking about this yesterday - there was a consensus among the Republicans that's what makes the difference is putting them in charge, making them the majority party. Democrats, not surprisingly, portray themselves as the willing partner, the people who are willing to do business with the Republicans now that the Democrats are in the minority. And they were pointing out the record numbers of filibusters and other procedural maneuvers that the Republicans had used when they were in the minority.

INSKEEP: I'm trying to avoid just saying, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, Ron Elving. But has anything really changed, you know, substantively, as you've watched this as a longtime observer?

ELVING: There's been a new focus on committees, where you can do the kind of bipartisan work that makes the Senate work when it does, where a simple majority can prevail, where you can negotiate, where you've got less TV coverage, perhaps, and maybe less static from all those competing presidential campaigns.

INSKEEP: Although, you do have those competing presidential campaigns. And, in fact, quite a few of the candidates or possible candidates are members of the United States Senate.

ELVING: Yes, at least three, probably going to be a fourth. And, you know, when you get to the floor, you're still going to have the usual dynamics that we've always had there. It's still the Senate floor. It's still kind of like Death Valley. And Mitch McConnell has 54 egos he has to deal with on the Republican side. And sometimes, it can get tough to get a majority over there. And you do need 60 to shut off a filibuster. And you need two-thirds to override a presidential veto, should we get to some more of those. So the tension, though, on the other hand, seems to have subsided just a little bit. The Democrats were really an embattled majority in recent years and Harry Reid, their leader, was caught between the White House and all those endangered incumbents he had among his colleagues. And some of that may have eased. And Reid himself, while he's still very much the leader, has announced that he's retiring next year. And he may be a little bit less of an irritant in some ways as his era is waning.

INSKEEP: Very briefly, what is an opportunity or two that the Senators have coming up to extend their winning streak?

ELVING: The higher hurdles are coming ahead. Next month, they're going to look at a deadline for the Highway Trust Fund...


ELVING: Something like a third of the roads in the country are falling apart. There's also a fiscal process coming up in the fall. And we'll whether or not we can keep the government functioning and raise the debt ceiling. No sign of anything happening on those issues.

INSKEEP: Ron, thanks very much.

ELVING: Thank you, Steve.

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