Dana Milbank
Opinion writer December 14, 2011

It has become commonplace to say that Washington is broken, but rarely does one get to see all the broken parts perform live and in concert as they did on the Senate floor Wednesday morning.

There and then Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and his Republican counterpart, Mitch McConnell, executed a veritable Dance of Dysfunction, a bravura Promenade of Pathology. Facing yet another deadline for a government shutdown, this one just over 36 hours away, the two leaders decided that the most constructive course of action would be to stand 10 feet apart in the Senate well and trade televised insults for 20 minutes without looking at each other.

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000. View Archive

“Americans can’t understand the Republicans’ obstructionism,” Reid announced. “Republican leaders have spent weeks drumming up support for Tea Party legislation they knew was dead on arrival in the Senate.”

“Our friends across the aisle have no plan and, some might suggest, no desire to pass a payroll tax cut extension,” McConnell retorted. “Instead, we’ve wasted week after week after week, one senseless show vote after another.”

Reid drummed his fingers and tugged his ear. “Madam President, my friend is living in a world of non-reality,” he said. “My friends on the other side of the aisle obviously want to have the government shut down. . . . That presumptive Republican nominee, Newt Gingrich, tried that once. It didn’t work so well.”

Back and forth went the allegations, personal and vitriolic: “useless partisan charade. . . an about-face from just a few hours before. . . extreme right wing. . . designed solely to score points on millionaires. . . I’m not sure what the majority leader just said.”

McConnell tapped his knuckles on his desk. Reid gritted his teeth. “I don’t care what. . . Mitch McConnell says,” Reid announced. He claimed that Senate Republicans were “embarrassed or ashamed” of what House Republicans had done.

“Speaking of embarrassment,” McConnell said, tucking a hand in his pants pocket. “In three years this Democrat Senate hasn’t passed a budget.”

“Talk about a diversion,” Reid answered acidly. “My friend, the Republican leader, has talked from the very beginning of this Congress, his No. 1 goal is to defeat Obama for reelection. That’s not looking so good. Romney is stumbling.”

McConnell objected to Reid’s proposal for the day’s votes. Reid objected to McConnell’s proposal and then, in an overabundance of pugilism, objected to his own proposal. “We’ll both object, just for good measure,” he said. “Bipartisan objection.”

At least they can agree on something.

This descent into the Jane-you-ignorant-slut style of legislative debate was brought about by a collision of two year-end pieces of legislation. Democrats are refusing to pass a gargantuan spending bill that would keep the government running, in an attempt to extract concessions from Republicans on a separate matter: the payroll-tax cut. Republicans, in turn, are refusing to negotiate a compromise on the payroll-tax cut until the Democrats pass the spending bill.

Pretty much everybody in both parties wants both the spending bill and the payroll-tax cut to pass, yet they are unable to stop themselves from their usual, moronic brinkmanship, which now jeopardizes both items. Lawmakers had better hope that the 12 or so percent of Americans who still approve of Congress weren’t watching C-Span2 on Wednesday, because even that level of support would be in jeopardy.

To kill time while they awaited Friday’s government-shutdown deadline, senators showcased their dramatic skills. Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, chief Democratic warrior, engaged in some play-acting with Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), pretending to puzzle over why Senate Republicans don’t want to take up the payroll-tax bill passed by House Republicans.

“This is a Republican bill?” McCaskill asked.

“That is correct,” Schumer replied.

“And we’re ready to vote on it?”

“We are.”

“And the Republicans will not let us vote on it?”

“That is correct.”

“I’m confused.”

“So are we all.”

Omitted from this colloquy was another bit of confusion: Why Senate Democrats weren’t willing to vote on the spending bill, even though, as McConnell pointed out, Rep. Jim Moran (Va.), a senior Democrat on the House appropriations committee, said: “Our bill is done. It should go to the president immediately.”

Reid was holding up the spending bill to gain leverage on the payroll bill. McConnell was holding up the payroll bill to gain leverage on the spending bill. And, as usual, nothing was happening.

The deadlocked senators decided instead to have midday votes on two balanced-budget amendments to the Constitution, one proposed by Democrats and the other by Republicans. To nobody’s surprise, both failed. And, to the strains of the Malfunction Minuet, the senators continued their waltz toward Friday’s deadline.

danamilbank@washpost.com