The Senate’s epic fails

On Tuesday evening, a landmark jobs proposal from a Democratic president came before the Democratic-controlled Senate. There were 50 votes for it and 49 votes against it.

And it failed.

Just as everybody expected.

The fate of the bill — which lost by winning, in a vote that didn’t really matter in the first place — made perfect sense in the Senate. It may be the Washington institution most warped by the current culture of gridlock, transformed from a balky but functional legislative body into a strange theater of failure.

The reason: In the Senate, it takes 60 votes to do anything big. And neither party has them.

So the huge tactical question is not whether big ideas will lose. It is who will own the failure politically.

The Senate’s top two leaders have spent the past nine months trying to trick, trap, embarrass and out-maneuver each other. Each is hoping to force the other into a mistake that will burden him and his party with a greater share of the public blame.

On Tuesday, as usual, it was hard to tell whether anyone was winning.

“Democrats have designed this bill to fail — they have designed their own bill to fail — in the hopes that anyone who votes against it will look bad,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), one of the two combatants, said Tuesday.

But at the same time McConnell was blaming Democrats for the measure’s demise, he was hoping for it to go down, too. He had pushed for Tuesday night’s vote because he knew it would reveal that some Senate Democrats were against their own president’s plan. Indeed, two voted no — three, if you count a late-game maneuver by Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) to preserve his procedural options going forward.

For Reid, the bill’s failure was an opportunity to cast Republicans as spurning solid ideas for creating jobs, including a Democratic plan to raise taxes on millionaires.

“I guess Republicans think that if the economy improves, it might help President Obama,” Reid said on the Senate floor Tuesday. “So they root for the economy to fail.”

The vote on Obama’s jobs proposal was, technically, a vote on “cloture” — to force the Senate to proceed to a formal debate on the legislation. These measures require 60 votes for passage, more than the simple majority required to pass the bill itself.

So, by that chamber’s logic, a vote of 50 to 49 was as much a failure as a vote of 99 to 1.

The Senate’s strange turn this year is partly a result of these odd rules — and the bitter political times.

The House is in Republican hands. The White House is held by a Democrat. Stuck between them is the Senate, whose rules require the kind bipartisan cooperation that neither side seems capable of providing.

But this drama is the creation of its protagonists, Reid and McConnell.

The two are remarkably similar. Reid, 71, grew up in a Nevada cabin, the son of a miner who committed suicide. McConnell, 69, struggled with polio during childhood. Both of them moved up through local elected offices and reached the Senate in the 1980s.

Today, both are quiet loners in a Capitol full of backslapping, glad-handing pols. They are inside men, masters of procedure and rules, skills they now deploy to try to get each other to make politically costly mistakes.

“It’s how these parties try to build majorities for their positions,” said Sarah Binder, a historian of Congress at George Washington University. “It’s certainly not a great use of time — I mean, debating a bill that’s not going anywhere. At the end of the day, one has to wonder why they can’t sit down and talk about a bill that’s going somewhere.”

This spring, Reid won a round when he forced Republicans to vote on an austere budget plan approved by the House. That bill failed, and some Senate Republicans took embarrassing votes against a GOP plan.

Then, in the summer, McConnell scored his own victory-in-failure.

He made Democrats vote on Obama’s months-old budget request — which by then seemed far out of step in a Capitol focused on spending cuts. The measure failed. But every Democrat was made to oppose the president’s ideas.

The two men rejoin this battle nearly every morning when the Senate opens for business. Reid often speaks first, with the mien of an exasperated grandfather. He simply can’t believe that “my good friend” across the aisle is trying to pull a fast one.

McConnell often follows. His manner is that of a disappointed innocent: He knows the American people expect more of Democrats and thought that this time they would do better.

“Democrats are showing the American people that they have no new ideas for dealing with our jobs crisis,” McConnell said this week. “Democrats’ sole proposal is to keep doing what hasn’t worked.”

If this is theater, the audience doesn’t appear to be responding. Neither Reid nor McConnell seems to be doing well in public opinion polls. In August, a Quinnipiac University poll showed that only 18 percent of registered voters had a favorable opinion of Reid, and only 14 percent thought favorably of McConnell. In both cases, more than 40 percent didn’t know enough about the leader to form an opinion.

But the fight keeps on. A high point in the two leaders’ battles came last week — although understanding it required a trained parliamentarian.

Reid was about to make Republicans take a vote that could embarrass some of them: The bill would let the United States punish China for undervaluing its currency. A “no” vote could make some Republicans look soft on China.

McConnell, in turn, was trying to make Democrats vote on Obama’s jobs plan, and on the idea of the Environmental Protection Agency regulating “farm dust” as an air pollutant.

In the real world, none of these bills are likely to become law. But the real world was not really the point.

Finally, Reid took an unusual step: He gathered enough votes to declare McConnell’s tactics formally out of order.

That amounted to only a small change in the Senate’s rules. But it was a real loss for McConnell, because the precedent might limit the minority party’s ability to make the majority party take votes it dislikes.

McConnell took to the floor. After months of theater, he really did seem to be mad at Reid.

“I like him. We deal with each other every day,” he said. “We are fundamentally turning the Senate into the House.” There, the majority rules absolutely, and there is no art to failure.

Polling manager Peyton Craighill contributed to this report.

David A. Fahrenthold covers Congress for the Washington Post. He has been at the Post since 2000, and previously covered (in order) the D.C. police, New England, and the environment.
Paul Kane covers Congress and politics for the Washington Post.
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