“What I want to accomplish at our retreat is the beginnings of the conversation of assembling an agenda to take to the country, and the launching of a process under which we put that agenda together,” Ryan told reporters Tuesday.
McConnell, on the other hand, has focused on returning to regular order, passing 12 appropriations bills to keep the government’s doors open, alongside a few bills that share broad bipartisan support. McConnell’s plan is, as he likes to say, to get the Senate “back to work.” When asked by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos on Sunday what one major bill he could send to the president this year, McConnell turned immediately to appropriations, admitting that his goals weren’t exactly as exciting to voters as Ryan’s.
“I think … this may be a little bit boring to the public, but we haven't passed every single bill that runs the government, the appropriation[s] bill, since 1994,” McConnell said Sunday, calling it a part of Senate Republicans’ “continuing effort to end dysfunction in Congress.”
The differences, in part, reflect the opportunities and the limitations of the chamber each man leads. The House, with its ability to act quickly, has often served as a petri dish for ideas, while the slower Senate is hamstrung by its complex debate rules and the power given to the minority party. And while House GOP leadership aides caution that Ryan has promised only to propose ideas, not pass them, doing even that could put the Senate in a squeeze.
McConnell in 2016 has further concerns: the needs of his three GOP senators who are presidential candidates as well as those of the five Republican senators running for reelection in states that President Obama won twice. Big ideas could give them something to run on, but as Ryan learned through the Democrats' lambasting of his budget plan in the 2010 and 2012 elections, they can also create new targets on the backs of vulnerable members.
If in fact many crucial House ideas are the victims of Senate inaction rather than President Obama’s veto pen, the upper chamber’s failure to take up those central issues could make it difficult for the party to prove to voters they should hand them the keys to the White House too.
Still, National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Greg Walden said, Senate inactivity in and of itself is something Republicans will cite to make the case to voters that they should elect a Republican president. That is because while the House has limited political risk this election cycle, the Senate is vulnerable, and McConnell could blame his own chamber’s timidity on an unsympathetic president.
“They would have a bigger incentive to move forward if we had a Republican president,” Walden said. “If you know you’re going to make big change and it’s going to become law, it’s often worth the risk. If you aren’t sure it’s going to become law, then it’s OK to maybe talk about it, but do you really want to go all the way out if you know it’s not going to become law? It’s sort of the rule of politics regardless of where you are.”