[J]ust how much is it possible, even theoretically, to get done? I figure there's a maximum of 20-25 calendar days available before final adjournment, and as we all know, Republicans have loads of procedural roadblocks available to them that eat up calendar time. So what's the most that can get done? Two bills? Maybe three? Is more than that even conceivable?He's going to hate my answer...
They can get done as much as they want. Five weeks is plenty of time to pass everything if there are few objections, or practically nothing if the minority has the votes and maximizes how much they want to block.
Which I suspect everyone knows, but the real point I want to make is that it's a mistake to think of a unit called "bills." Most of the bills that anyone has heard of that reach the floor of the House or Senate include provisions which began their lives as separate bills, but were folded into larger legislative vehicles on the way to passage. Sometimes that's for efficient use of floor and committee time; sometimes it's for logrolling. Go back to a really major effort, such as health care reform or the financial bill, and you'll sometimes find...I don't know how many things that could be, and probably were, individual bills. Half a dozen? Dozens? Neither would surprise me. Remember too that student loan reform wound up as part of the health care bill, and that several initiatives were folded into the stimulus.
There's nothing at all wrong with that, at least not in my view. There's also no limit to it other than the ability of majority party leaders to be creative, and the real limit: votes. You can't fold immigration in with anything else, because immigration will sink whatever it's with. But time really isn't the main limitation; it's votes.
Two other notes. First, I'll link again to a list of over 50 nominations approved on one day before the Senate quit for the election. Granted, these were non-controversial choices, or at least ones on which Harry Reid had worked out a deal with the GOP. Still, there's nothing (other than needing 60 votes for cloture) to keep Reid from packaging all outstanding nominations into one vote. (OK, two: one for cloture, one for final confirmation).
Second, it strikes me that the more Congress is polarized along party lines, the more likely it is that if you have the votes for one thing, you have the votes for other things -- and that therefore the costs of packaging bills together go way down. Of course, that's still not entirely the case; energy producing states still send Dems to Congress who won't agree with mainstream Dems on climate/energy, for example. I don't know if anyone has studied this, but the logic seems right to me.
Now, that's not to say that time isn't important. It's certainly a factor at the end of sessions. But majorities with enough votes can overcome all but the most extreme time pressures, if they want to. Of course, that just brings everything back to the fact that it takes 60 in the Senate, and the Democrats are down to 58.