The Senate went three months this spring without voting on a single legislative amendment, the nitty-gritty kind of work usually at the heart of congressional lawmaking. So few bills have been approved this year, and so little else has gotten done, that many senators say they are spending most of their time on insignificant and unrewarding work.
The big issues have been sidelined by political and procedural battles and an intensely personal war between the leadership offices.
Senators say that they increasingly feel like pawns caught between Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), whose deep personal and political antagonisms have almost immobilized the Senate.
The two men so distrust each other, and each is so determined to deny the other even the smallest political success, that their approach to running the Senate has been reduced to a campaign of mutually assured dysfunction.
“It’s pretty bad, and I don’t think there’s any way to fix it,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.).
Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), who commutes daily from Wilmington to the Capitol by Amtrak, said he keeps working on small issues, hoping to find bipartisan partners and sneak them into law without getting ensnared in the bigger partisan wars.
Otherwise, he said, “I have a hard time getting on the train in the morning.”
The problems are so severe that a rump caucus of Democrats and Republicans has been meeting secretly, trying to break the logjam, to no avail.
The situation is so alarming that former Senate leaders, including Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.), are mounting a public intervention to try to steer the chamber back toward effectiveness and maybe even some of its grand traditions.
If the situation seems suddenly more urgent, it is just an escalation of an old problem.
A year ago things were so bad, relationships so frayed, that nearly all 100 senators gathered in the Old Senate Chamber for an off-the-record summit to try to clear the air, trying to conjure up the dealmaking ghosts of Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun and Daniel Webster. They spent three hours talking with each other, with no TV cameras, in a room where some of the great compromises of the first half of the 19th century were brokered.
“It was a great debate,” Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) said as he exited the session. “One of the high points of my time here.” There was talk of more such gatherings, as well as lectures from retired leaders to the bulging crop of young senators so that the newcomers would understand that they were now part of a place steeped in noble history.
None of it happened, and after a brief respite the tension quickly reemerged.
“If anything, they’re worse,” said Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), the back-bench lawmaker who initiated that marathon meeting. “There is no hope for the rest of the year.”
Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W. Va.), a frenetic former governor who is always trying to broker deals, continues to host bipartisan get-togethers for rank-and-file senators on his boat in National Harbor. The goodwill seems genuine, but nothing changes. “I can get them all together,” Manchin said. “They’re still not breaking the gridlock, because you know why? The gridlock is cloistered in a very small arena — the leadership.”
Much of that hopelessness has to do with the aspirations each side has for the November midterms.
If Reid allowed the free-
flowing give-and-take that defined the Senate of the past, his endangered Democratic incumbents would be forced to vote on carefully crafted GOP amendments designed to hurt them in November. He refuses to do that.
If McConnell were to work with Reid to allow the Senate to function more smoothly and effectively, he would undermine a key component of the Republican campaign argument this fall: that Democrats have mismanaged the Senate and the GOP must take over.
In mid-June, McConnell declared that he would try to attach a coal amendment — curtailing regulations on coal emissions from power plants — to every bill that funds the federal government.
If Reid allows a vote on that amendment, more than enough red-state Democrats are certain to support it to let it clear 50 votes, and several more would be caught in the middle. McConnell, from a big coal-production state, would be the biggest beneficiary if it is approved, since he has made the administration’s alleged “war on coal” central to his reelection bid.
The result has been months and months of fractious procedural fights on legislation.
Senators who say they want to legislate are caught in the middle. “Do we want to be in a place where all we’re voting on is ambassadors and political appointments? That’s not what I came to do, and I think a lot of people did not come here to do that,” said Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), a top Republican target in the midterms.
The action — inaction, really — in the second week of July was typical. The main legislation was a sportsmen’s bill from Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), also a top GOP target, who has 26 Republican co-sponsors for a bill to expand hunting and fishing rights on government lands. It was a relatively easy bipartisan bill that became entangled in the amendment dispute, with Republicans lining up proposals to boost gun owners’ rights.
It was introduced Monday evening. Reid pulled the plug 24 hours later and set up a Thursday vote destined to fail, which it did.
Almost every week has the same rhythm: confirm appointees Monday night, consider a Democratic bill that will fail without any real debate, then confirm a few more nominees. By 2 p.m. each Thursday, most senators are en route to the airports. In June, senators cast 53 votes, but only seven were related to legislation; the rest were on nominations.
This past week brought mild progress. A program to protect insurance companies from a mass terrorism event won overwhelming approval, 93 to 4, and Republicans offered two amendments, but the legislation was crafted at the highest levels and was given about one hour of debate Thursday afternoon. The average senator had no input into the bill.
Daschle said the Senate’s gridlock, along with the previous three years of instability among the House GOP majority, has left Congress crippled, allowing President Obama and governors to seize power through their executive actions. “The Congress is probably weaker than it’s ever been,” he said in an interview.
Some say that weakness comes from the demise of powerful individual senators, some of whom ruled their committees like fiefdoms and others who otherwise exercised outsize influence.
According to Lott, the absence of Senate “characters” such as Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) is a significant factor in the equation. “There were characters, personalities, men, mostly, that had disproportionate personalities and influence on the institution. There are none now,” he said.
Almost half the chamber’s members have served less than one term, and by early this year five chairmen had decided to retire at the end of 2014.
That has put more power in the hands of the party leaders, Reid and McConnell, making their personal relationship even more important to making the Senate work. The Reid-McConnell relationship melted down long ago amid personal animosity between them.
“They’re like oil and water,” Lott said. “They don’t mix.”
According to friends and advisers, Reid considers McConnell to be a weak leader who has trouble keeping his word because the GOP caucus has grown much more conservative in the past five years. He says McConnell can never put together a finite list of reasonable amendments because conservatives keep adding demands.
“They can’t do that, because they can’t agree on what amendments they want,” Reid said recently on the Senate floor.
However, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) contended Reid demands to pick which Republican amendments get votes, trying to guarantee his preferred outcome.
Some Republicans say Reid has been meaner and unnecessarily personal of late.
Wicker pointed to Reid’s speech about amendments, which began with Reid mocking Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), despite her steady work with Democrats these days.
“The senator from Alaska spoke this morning about her desire for consideration of amendments. Typical, typical, typical,” Reid said, his tone dredged in condescension.
Reid has also felt some pressure from Democrats to open up the amendment process, from a group that includes Manchin, Begich and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.). “We are not afraid to take the tough votes,” Begich said. “Do not protect us from ourselves.”
Yet Reid has unwavering support from all corners of his caucus, as does McConnell. Many Democrats believe the Senate discord has less to do with the status of the Reid-McConnell relationship and more to do with the growing fractures inside the national Republican Party. A half-dozen Republicans, including McConnell, faced tea-party-backed opponents in primaries, leading several to stake out staunch conservative positions.
“It’s very hard to get around people who are so disconnected from reality,” Whitehouse said.
No one is sure when or how the fever will break. Must-pass legislation, such as a bill to assure insurance companies do not go bankrupt from a mass act of terrorism, is usually negotiated at the highest levels and then put on the floor for an hour or two of consideration before a couple of votes to approve it.
And so rank-and-file senators have found personal routines to make their lives palatable. At least once a week, late in the day when the chamber is all but empty, Whitehouse will deliver a speech on the need for climate-change legislation.
Wicker has devoted more time to foreign affairs, an arena requiring diplomacy, not votes.
Coons has become the Senate’s leading authority on African affairs. He also has become an expert on manufacturing, promoting any bipartisan bill his colleagues draft on the issue. Last week, he trumpeted the quiet passage of legislation designed to increase skill training for manufacturing jobs, including five of the little bills that he had been touting.
“I would rather celebrate the progress,” he said, “than shake my fist at the silence of the Senate.”