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The Reid-McConnell Senate: Is It Really Such a Mess?

3 years ago
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The Senate is in one of those phases that make normal people wonder what on earth is going on in Washington, and possibly even what possessed the Founding Fathers who created the upper chamber. Writers are lamenting its decline, senators are laying plans for change, and some House members make no effort to hide their scorn.

The leader of the abandon-hope forces is New Yorker writer George Packer. In a piece headlined "The Empty Chamber," he says the Senate has managed only two lasting achievements in 18 months and now is "slipping back into stagnant waters." Washington Post columnist David Broder also takes a dim view. Teeing off from Packer, he bemoans the lack of institutional giants in the Senate – people capable of "summoning the will to tackle overriding challenges in a way that almost shamed their colleagues out of their small-mindedness."

At the other end of the Senate assessment spectrum is Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). At a Christian Science Monitor breakfast last week, he allowed that the Senate 100 Club, with its quaintly esoteric rules and customs, "takes a bit of getting used to." But he asserted that it's working much the way the Founding Fathers envisioned: as "a place where time was taken, things were thought over and consensus was reached if consensus was appropriate."

Harry Reid, Mitch McConnell
Consensus has been rare of late, McConnell acknowledged, leading to a great many filibusters and Democratic chases to find 60 votes for cloture (the process that cuts off debate and allows the Senate to move forward). But that's to be expected when the two parties are in the middle of "a great debate about the future of the country," McConnell said. He also dismissed as no big deal the secret "holds" that senators put on bills and nominations, gumming up the works for weeks and even months. They're not usually secret, McConnell said, and sometimes they are the only way to draw attention to your (often completely unrelated) point.

As for collegiality, no problem there, either. "Some of my best friends are Democrats," McConnell said, naming long-serving senators Harry Reid of Nevada and Chris Dodd of Connecticut. McConnell says he and Reid, the majority leader, are in constant, cordial talks on Capitol Hill to schedule votes and accommodate senatorial concerns and demands. "All the time, every day," he said, the pair juggle nominations, schedules, "nervous members" who don't want to vote on certain amendments and other members who won't vote for cloture unless certain amendments are allowed. "I don't think any of this is a threat to the nation," the Republican leader said mildly.

Somewhere between McConnell's insistent sunniness and the other side's black mood lies the real Senate – frustrating, dilatory, partisan, always making things harder than necessary, and in some ways a distortion of what the founders had in mind, but hardly stagnant.

The Underestimated Senate Record


Since President Barack Obama's inauguration in January 2009, the Senate has confirmed two Supreme Court nominees, revamped the student loan system and removed obstacles to women and others pursuing equal pay. The Senate also has approved three laws – the economic recovery act, the health care overhaul and financial regulatory reform – that contain within them scores of achievements. Had the major items in these bills been passed separately, the last 18 months would have been crammed with one success after another (or one tough defeat after another, depending on your party). This fall the Senate appears poised to pass a bill to help small businesses, and another to boost clean energy jobs and respond to the BP oil spill.

It's an impressive record, but it has not been treated that way. Part of the reason is that the journey has been ugly. McConnell and his crew are on track to match their 2007-08 record of forcing 139 cloture votes to end filibusters, while Democrats are taking the usual steps -- compromises, cajoling, cringe-worthy deals -- to forge onward. Every move by each side is dissected 24/7 by countless armchair analysts on blogs, talk radio and cable TV.

The Senate also suffers from its high-profile failures, especially in contrast with the House. House rules make it far easier for the majority to prevail, and the Democrats -- with a 77-vote edge -- have been moving at a breakneck pace. Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office lists 345 bills that as of July 9 had passed the House but not the Senate. This week she's calling all 435 House members back from recess to vote on a Senate bill giving strapped states money to help them pay for Medicaid and avoid laying off 300,000 teachers, police officers and firefighters. The House passed a similar bill last December, in plenty of time for school districts to make plans. The Senate finally passed its version Thursday.

Nothing captures the level of House frustration more than the energy and climate bill Pelosi pushed through by seven votes in June 2009. At the time the breakthrough seemed to assure that the United States would take steps to put a price on carbon pollution, slow global warming and jumpstart expansion of the clean energy sector. But the Senate ran out of time, energy and political space to work toward compromise and 60 votes on yet another controversial issue. Pelosi was so annoyed that she reportedly vented to Reid and McConnell about the Senate's "glacial" pace.

The upshot is that some Democrats and a handful of Republicans this fall will have to defend (or recant) their votes for a cap-and-trade system that the GOP has branded "cap-and-tax" -- without having anything to show for the risks they took. "They have worst of both worlds," Democratic climate strategist Daniel Weiss told me. "They voted to invest in renewable energy. They voted to invest in energy efficiency. They voted to reduce pollution. Because of Senate inaction, none of those things is going to come to fruition."

McConnell denied there has been any motive beyond principle in the obstructionist tactics. However, that would hardly explain why six Republicans co-sponsored a deficit reduction commission then voted against it. Or what Packer calls "nakedly partisan, and outlandish" amendments to the health bill (such as one to guarantee mentally ill veterans the right to own firearms or another to deny convicted sex offenders the right to buy Viagra with taxpayer money).

McConnell also said he has used nothing but persuasion to get GOP senators to oppose various bills en masse. The tactic has served the party well by drawing clear contrasts, McConnell said: "We've had very, very good unity on almost all the major issues. And I think that's been important to our comeback."


High Stakes, High Pressure


Various senators, however, have described tremendous pressure to follow their leader rather than their inclinations. Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) voted yes on the recovery act, then felt compelled to switch parties. Packer reports on pressure on Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) to vote against the health reform bill she had helped shape. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) abandoned negotiations on climate and immigration bills. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn) worked on financial reform, but Democrats doubted Corker could deliver GOP votes and halted the bipartisan talks.

Broder recounted the bitter disappointment of "a conservative Republican senator with three years of seniority" at not finding the cross-party friendships Vice President Joe Biden had told him about or "the collegial, challenging body" his predecessor had described. The odds are high that the senator was Corker -- one of only two Republicans with three years of experience, the only one whose predecessor (Bill Frist) is still alive, and the only one who worked across party lines on high-profile issues.

Corker's public remarks suggest bitter disappointment with both parties. That is a reality. But so are floor proceedings on C-SPAN, which show senators in their native habitat, mostly treating one another nicely. Take for instance the close of the debate last month on the final version of financial reform. Dodd, the committee chairman who guided the bill and is retiring in January, thanked Republicans Corker and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) for work he said had improved the final product. Hutchison thanked Dodd for accommodating her concerns about community banks.

Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) congratulated Dodd for accomplishing so much in his final year ("and I have not agreed with all of it, by the way"). Gregg added: "Most importantly, he has done it in a fair and balanced way, always with a sense of humor and an openness and willingness to listen to those with whom he may not agree entirely." This effusive praise, of course, came after Gregg had supported the usual Republican attempts to delay and block the bill in question.

Love it, hate it or both, that's our 21st-century Senate. Should it change, and if so, how much? Reid has scheduled a vote this fall on a bill to eliminate secret holds. That would be a modest and helpful change. So would a limit on filibusters (one Hill aide suggested a system modeled on NFL replay rules, under which coaches are allowed two challenges per game). Other Senate watchers have proposed barring holds and filibusters under certain circumstances, or reducing from 60 to 55 the votes needed to end a filibuster. Political scientist Jonathan Bernstein would let the majority party have one bill a year that needs only a 51-vote majority to pass.

Senate veterans say members who want to eliminate the filibuster entirely, or even impose severe limits, are members who haven't served in the minority. Dodd urged 10 Democrats pushing for change to take that long view. That earned him this Daily Kos headline: "Dodd insists Senate remain paralyzed after he leaves." McConnell recounted the surprise result when Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) proposed eliminating the filibuster in January 1995, right after Republicans had taken over the Senate. "Every single Republican voted against changing the filibuster rule at a time when we would have most benefited from doing it," he said.

McConnell advised impatient junior Democrats to remember all the Senate has done over the last 200 years "to save America from the worst excesses." He might as well have added, "Just like we Republicans are trying to do now." It's what we at that breakfast all were thinking as we tried in our minds to untangle a Gordian knot of competing and shifting interests, and locate an answer to the core question: What kind of Senate would best serve not the partisans or the traditionalists or the young Turks, but the nation that depends on it?

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59 Comments

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dredcrowe

This is not about your comeback if you forgot your their to serve the people of the United States and not your ego... If you want to serve the people let journalist tell all Americans what the seed statis is going to be like by 2030 that would be serving the people that voted for you.

August 18 2010 at 7:29 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Michael

The Senates proper role is to check the reckless impulses of fashion so as to avoid rash action in the wake of short-term thinking. That is why the terms are longer; that is why the turnover is staggered; and that is why it is apportioned by stste rather than by population.
The scheme was arrived at by founders who studied the successes and failures of societies since the dawn of recorded history. It has served us well, if erratically, for 234 years or so, and does not seem to need "fixing" now on the part of those who want to hock our future even more quickly, or to make it yet easier to govern arbitrarily against the will of the taxpayer.
Stay tuned in November to see how mobilized voters have become in the wake of the Pelosi/Reid Congress.

August 10 2010 at 7:52 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Michael's comment
avbysandy

Partially true however, politicians are WORSE than ever @ 'spinning', positioning themselves for Re Election to say nothing of the extreme Adversarial positions BOTH parties take against each other. THAT's what's broken!

August 10 2010 at 9:29 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
Terry and Dawn

It never ceases to amaze me that people forget that Reid and Pelosi have had the majority vote since 2006 in both houses. If they can't get their fellow democrats to back their legislative agenda, perhaps its not an agenda that should be pursued. We cannot continue to spend our way out of bankruptcy. Financial conservatism is not only needed, it is imperative to our future.

August 10 2010 at 12:36 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Jon

Personally, I would prefer to vote in people willing to compromise even in the minority. These highlighted party differences are the opposite of a more perfect union. It's not the Congress's fault as far as corruption goes though. That has been done for the past century and probably longer. I would say that voting for new people would probably produce the same result though. If we put people who are fiercely conservative or fiercely liberal and are not privy to the workings of Congress, then we suddenly make it worse. Ultimately, instead of flaming and accusing, think about who you're electing. Be careful, because your solution may merely make the problem worse.

August 10 2010 at 11:15 AM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Jon's comment
ialbel

Compromise what ... integrity, philosophy, right and wrong? Compromise is what has gotten us into too many messes. I prefer politicians willing to stand behind the principles we should be electing them upon.
I don't want some clown who waters down the other votes by brokering backdoor deals. I am sick of Collins and Snowe and I live in Maine.

August 10 2010 at 3:32 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
jws1141

JOHN
It is because this type of analysis of our present government that we are in, big trouble. I not only is it short sighted, faulty and avoids the major problems. Both parties are equally at fault, little differences but the same results. Yes, we all want the USA to be number one, greatest country that civilization has ever seen. Politicians first, government employees next, big business, special interest groups, the environment and the Public, people last. Do you think that any American doesn't want a fair and equal "Health Care System"
To think differently is Un-American, what we don't want is a system that is unfair, why doesn't the Senate & House Representatives, adopt a system for all to use. Whatever happened to more Doctors ? not a replacement for Health Care but just more Doctors (education).
The Media refuse, to confront the Politicians on these real issues (example above & can be extended to many more issues), only allowing the questions asked to them, be first examined and picked on what they want to talk about and write about how they are thinking ahead. There are so many areas that can be challenge but not enough space here to write about. We are in big trouble, we must face the truth and the right now - politicians for themselves, no national pride.

August 10 2010 at 9:24 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Dave

...the perspective depends on which ideology one holds.

Many people think what congress has done is a good start, but they should have done more by this time.

To many others, the current congress is no better then what we had under the Bush administration, and to many more it's worse.

There is also a belief that many hold, that most of what congress (both parties) has done under President Obama was a bitter pill,rammed down the American public's throats, certainly not taken willingly.

And then there's the 'transparency' issues, which will exist as long as there are people running things. But contrary to the administration's and our esteemed congressional leaders promises of ethics and morality, the corruption of our elected officials is at least AS bad, if not worse then what we've had in the past.

In the end, all the talk (including my little rant here), and all the columns and editorials mean nothing.
The REAL bottom line come in November when voters have an opportunity to really make their voices heard. THEN we will see if the reported anger, and disgust with the people who are to be working for us is real, or blown out of proportion.

August 10 2010 at 8:28 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
vitopiper

The elected terms for the house and senate make no sense given the present day costs of campaigning. The senate with its 6 year term has become the plaything of the independently rich. Why should anyone want to invest millions for only a scant two year term? And the house term of two years means that a representative spends 50% of him time and effort running for re-election. Given the power of a single vote in the senate compared to the proportional vote in the house, the terms would make more sense if they were reversed.
The terms for both should be four years.

August 10 2010 at 8:10 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
maxnesolite

The Senate should return to direct appointmnet by the respective State legislature as originally framed in the Constitution.

It's role is to represent the individual State's interest thereby keeping Federal big government in check.

Anyone think the Federal Government is too small?

The "soft coup" of 1913 needs to be undone.....Senate,Income Tax & Federal Reserve Bank.

August 10 2010 at 7:56 AM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply
John M Stills

is there logical reasoning for asking of the commentary involed, just by the nature of the commentary one should note that it is a statment to the obvious
consider the turmoil in the united states and ask yourself am I stirrung the pot or am I doing something to make it better(progress) proactive efforts should be made to improve, but as I have observed this is not completly the case
there are so many things broken it is not even funny, and the level of suffering that it has created should be made note of for correction, but I can clearly see that it is going to be a hard and slow uphill battle, consider the comment " every american household makes at least $250,000.00 a year " ?
and no one should have to depend on medicare or unemployment, what kind of jedi mind trick are they trying to pull unbelivable.

August 10 2010 at 7:53 AM Report abuse +6 rate up rate down Reply
Kev & Trish

I don't like how Congress as a whole (Senate, House and President) has turned out. In this day and age it is not We the People, it is I promise you this this this.... and then I win the election and do everything other than what was stated on their platform. It's a horrible system and I am sure the founding fathers are turning over in their graves at what Congress has become. I still keep praying for each and everyone in public office, the Lord answers all prayers in His own time and sometimes we will not agree with His answer. Sure seems to me that Revelations is actually begun.

August 10 2010 at 7:40 AM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Kev & Trish's comment
Jon

I'm going to proceed to call you uninformed now. Not because you're a bible-thumper, but because the president isn't part of Congress. I'm also going to say that, to have that sort of view, you don't really know anything about politics. Anyone see someone cometh with clouds or the ***** of Babylon lately? By that time you might actually have a point.

August 10 2010 at 11:28 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

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