The Wall Street Journal
WASHINGTON—Republicans don’t control the Senate. But on some days, they have controlled the Senate’s agenda on issues including crime and the environment.
While Democrats run the Senate floor on account of their 51-49 majority, Republicans are using various tools to force votes on issues dear to the GOP, over the opposition of Senate Democratic leaders and President Biden. They have employed the Congressional Review Act and other provisions of federal law to target rules written by administration agencies and hold votes on hot-button issues, sometimes peeling off centrist Democrats positioning themselves ahead of the 2024 elections.
More GOP-led votes are expected in the coming weeks, testing Democratic unity and potentially forcing vetoes from Mr. Biden. Republicans are billing these votes as critical tools of legislative oversight and accountability over the executive branch.
“As a legislative branch, we must protect our authority. The Biden administration is trying to subvert our laws, and it must be stopped,” Sen. Pete Ricketts (R., Neb.) said on the Senate floor last month.
A primary tool has been the Congressional Review Act, which allows Congress to overturn rules and regulations written by federal agencies within 60 days of their enactment by passing resolutions of disapproval. Disapproval resolutions are exempt from the filibuster rule and can’t be blocked by the Senate’s majority leader, meaning they need just a simple majority in both chambers to reach the president’s desk. They are still subject to a presidential veto, which would then require a two-thirds majority in each chamber to override.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R., W.Va.) introduced a disapproval resolution targeting the administration’s Waters of the United States rule, which expanded the definitions of waterways subject to federal pollution regulations. After clearing the House, it passed 53-43 in the Senate, with Democratic Sens. Jacky Rosen and Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Jon Tester of Montana joining all Republicans to pass the measure. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, an Arizona independent who caucuses with Democrats, also voted with Republicans.
The Senate also voted 50-46 to pass a disapproval resolution introduced by Sen. Mike Braun (R., Ind.) targeting Labor Department rules that allowed retirement-plan managers to consider environmental, social and corporate-governance issues, or ESG, in their investment decisions. Messrs. Manchin and Tester joined Republicans to pass the measure.
With Congress coming back into session, Republicans plan additional efforts to keep their agenda in the spotlight. A series of disapproval resolutions on environmental regulations is expected to receive votes in the coming weeks, among them a resolution introduced by Sen. Deb Fischer (R., Neb.) to overturn rules governing trucking emissions and one introduced by Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R., Wyo.) that would overturn new definitions of habitats for purposes of enforcing the Endangered Species Act.
Democrats defend such regulations as critical to protecting the environment, while Republicans cast them as costly government overreach.
Mr. Biden has used his veto power against these disapproval resolutions. He vetoed Mr. Braun’s disapproval bill on ESG, the first veto of his presidency, and an effort to override the veto in the House failed.
Mr. Biden also vetoed Ms. Capito’s water-regulations bill. In a message to Congress, the White House said that “the increased uncertainty caused by [the bill] would threaten economic growth, including for agriculture, local economies, and downstream communities.”
Republicans also have continued their focus on the District of Columbia. Federal law allows Congress to review and reject policies adopted by the District’s government within 30 days of their passage, which Republicans have used to target crime and voting-eligibility ordinances governing the nation’s capital. Another bill addressing proposed changes to D.C. policing practices is expected to receive a vote in the House this week.
Mr. Biden signed a GOP-led bill blocking the District’s revised criminal code back in March, after many Democrats broke ranks and backed the measure. Proponents said the new code was soft on crime, while District leaders said its local laws were being used to score political points.
Disapproval resolutions rarely succeed. Of the 249 disapproval resolutions that were introduced by members of Congress since the law’s inception in 1996 to October 2022, only 20 have successfully managed to overturn federal regulations, according to a new study by researchers at George Washington University. All the successes occurred immediately after a change in presidential administrations and when the president’s party held majorities in both houses of Congress, and all but three have occurred during a Republican presidency.
But the resolutions can serve political purposes, even if their odds of overturning regulations are low. For moderate lawmakers like Messrs. Manchin and Tester, breaking with their party and voting in favor of disapproval resolutions can bolster an image of legislative and political independence with voters. For Republicans, getting Democratic support makes the efforts bipartisan.
The minority party can also use disapproval resolutions to obstruct the majority’s goals, especially when Democrats are seeking to maximize floor time in the Senate to confirm federal court judges. Democrats previously used disapproval resolution votes during the Trump administration.
“Once the clock starts ticking up on them, the majority leader has to worry about scheduling them and arranging for votes, and so it actually consumes considerable resources on the part of the majority party,” said Stephen Smith, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis who focuses on legislative politics.
A spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The current environment for disapproval resolutions in the Senate is optimal, said Sarah Binder, a professor at George Washington University who focuses on Congress. Unlike the House, the Senate has had a more open tradition of debate, and Democrats’ slim 51-49 majority in the chamber and a number of recent absences have given Republicans more opportunities to bring these bills to the floor.
Republicans have made the most of this climate with the issues they have focused on, Ms. Binder said, pursuing resolutions that “increase the chances of picking up one of these random purple-state Democrats.”