US Senate adjourns, blocks recess appointments by President Trump

After days of acrimony between Russia and the US over a new batch of sanctions, President Trump lashed out at Congress for pushing a sanctions bill he only hesitantly signed.
The Senate side of the US Capitol is shown in Washington on Aug 3, 2017.
The Senate side of the US Capitol is shown in Washington on Aug 3, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The US Senate adjourned on Thursday (Aug 3), leaving President Donald Trump deprived of any major legislative victory heading into summer break, as lawmakers also blocked him from making so-called recess appointments during the rest period.

The move, by unanimous consent of the 100 senators, serves as a check on Trump as he mulls firing his Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Trump has considered replacing his embattled top law enforcement official amid broadening investigations into allegations that his aides coordinated with Russia to tilt last year's election in his favour.

The president has strongly criticised Sessions for recusing himself from the probe, and speculation swirled over whether Trump would ram through a replacement during the break, without Senate confirmation.

But that avenue closed on Thursday when Senator Lisa Murkowski, adjourning the Senate for the day, locked in nine "pro forma" sessions over the next month.

Such sessions typically last a minute or two, with no business conducted. Holding them keeps the Senate open during the vacation period, denying the president recess appointment opportunities.

ZERO MAJOR LEGISLATION

As summer-bound US lawmakers exit Washington, the numbers are telling: with Trump in office seven months, and his Republican Party controlling all three branches of government, Congress has passed zero pieces of major legislation.

The Republicans' over-promised effort to repeal and replace Barack Obama's healthcare reforms collapsed in embarrassing shambles.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had hoped to triumph on a health bill last month, leaving time to accomplish other goals including raising the US debt ceiling and working on budget bills for fiscal year 2018.

But the health care fiasco sucked up weeks of debate time, and its cascading effect stalled other legislation.

Republicans do claim some victories, including confirming conservative judge Neil Gorsuch onto the Supreme Court, rescinding several Obama-era regulations and improving conditions for veterans.

One top accomplishment was the Russia sanctions bill that passed with overwhelming support, leading Trump to sign the measure into law despite not backing it.

And on Thursday Republicans got unanimous consent from the chamber to confirm more than 60 nominees, including US ambassadors to Britain and Canada and a new representative to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.

But otherwise they now head home with few accomplishments, and likely to face conservatives angry at their failure to repeal Obamacare.

Number two Senate Republican John Cornyn signalled the health fight was not over.

"I can assure my colleagues that issue is not going away," he said.

New presidents often expend political capital to get important early priorities through Congress.

In early 2009, Obama passed an US$800 billion (S$ 1.09 trillion) economic stimulus package and bolstered equal-pay protections. George W. Bush passed his first round of tax cuts eight years earlier.

McConnell and Republican leadership in the House have signalled that the next major legislative lift will be tax reform.

But when Congress returns to work on Sept 5, it faces other immediate hurdles. Lawmakers will have precious little time to forge agreement on a budget and on extending federal borrowing authority.

Failure on those counts by Oct 1 could plunge the government into shutdown or a potentially catastrophic default, respectively.