Senate Partisanship Worst in Memory
Key Legislation Languishes as Democrats and Republicans Jockey for Power
By Helen Dewar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 2, 2004; Page A05
The Senate was bogged down in its latest snarl last Wednesday when an angry John McCain (R-Ariz.) blurted out publicly what many colleagues have been muttering in private: "Why don't we just go home . . . rather than go through this charade of telling Americans that we are legislating?"
McCain's tart observation reflected the paralysis that has gripped the Senate this year. The Senate is famously known for its painfully slow pace and legislative quicksand, and few had high hopes for significant achievements this year. But a breakdown in comity, the razor-thin GOP majority and expectations of a tight battle for Senate control in November have combined to produced one of the worst Senate stalemates in memory.
The list of stalled legislation is long, on issues ranging from energy and welfare to compensation for asbestos victims and curbs on medical malpractice lawsuits and other forms of civil litigation. Foreign tariffs have been imposed on many American products while the Senate dawdled over a bill to substitute corporate tax cuts for subsidies that have been outlawed by the World Trade Organization.
Senate Democrats, angry at being excluded from final decisions on bills, are balking at authorizing House-Senate conferences on several measures, including the huge highway funding bill, unless they can work out key points in preliminary negotiations. Action on President Bush's judicial nominations has ground to a halt. Even a relatively noncontroversial bill to reauthorize State Department and foreign aid programs was shelved by Republicans after Democrats signaled they would try to add unrelated amendments on issues such as raising the minimum wage.
Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) complained that the Senate has become "a factory that manufactures sound-bite votes that make great fodder for 30-second political ads" but do little to advance important legislation. If this continues, Byrd added, the Senate will become "little more than an insignificant arm of the political parties, and we may as well lower the flag that flies over this Capitol and wave the white flag of surrender in its place."
For sure, there are occasional breakthroughs, as when the Senate broke a months-long deadlock last Thursday and approved a four-year extension of a ban on taxing Internet access.
Democrats accuse Republicans of arrogance, mismanagement and trampling on their rights as the minority party. Republicans accuse Democrats of political point-scoring and "obstructionism" to keep Bush and the GOP-controlled Congress from claiming legislative accomplishments.
Just to prove their point, Republicans bring up bills that they know will get killed by a Democratic filibuster, while Democrats roll out amendment after amendment on sensitive issues, hoping to put Republicans on the spot.
In a move that infuriated many Democrats, Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) is breaking with Senate tradition by raising money to try to defeat Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.). Frist plans to go to South Dakota later this month to campaign for Daschle's Republican opponent, former House member John Thune.
Many Republicans, including McCain, were angered when Daschle, without warning them, tried to amend the Internet bill to include incentives for production of corn-based ethanol -- a big issue in his reelection campaign. Several Senate aides from both parties said Daschle might not have ambushed Frist on the issue if Frist had not committed to working for Daschle's defeat.
Unless the Senate suddenly changes its ways, the outlook is for, at best, sporadic breakthroughs on legislation where politics dictates action, such as the recently approved victims rights legislation and the Internet tax bill. But few if any senators have been heard to claim that major achievements requiring bipartisan support are likely this year, with the probable exception of the politically popular highway bill. Instead, candidates are already arguing over which party is most responsible for the failures.
The House has passed some but not all of the bills that are jammed up in the Senate and has only a modest agenda for the year. But the outlook for successful House-Senate conferences is unclear.
With all of this in mind, Byrd joined McCain in the critics' circle Thursday. Byrd was particularly upset by issues that he said the Senate was avoiding. Where is the debate over Iraq, financing for Social Security and Medicare, or increasing the competitiveness of American workers? he asked. "Have we lost the will to legislate?"
Byrd also took aim at the influence of the White House on Republican lawmakers, especially when it tries to dictate the outcome of House-Senate negotiations. "There was a time when the Senate was an independent body, not the errand boy of the White House," he said.
As for Frist's campaigning against Daschle, Byrd said it used to be taboo for one Senate leader to campaign actively against another. "Has honor gone, too?" he asked. "Who cares about honor when a Senate seat might be gained?"
The similar messages from McCain and Byrd are significant because Byrd, the Democratic traditionalist, and McCain, the Republican maverick, do not often see eye to eye. They disagree strongly on Iraq, with McCain urging more U.S. forces while Byrd wants them to come home. During the 1990s, they even faced off before the Supreme Court when Byrd successfully challenged one of McCain's major legislative achievements: passage of a bill giving presidents "line-item" veto authority for spending bills.
But they both care deeply about the Senate and its performance, as do many other senators who are distressed about the high level of politically inspired gridlock in a chamber that relies heavily on comity and cooperation to get anything done.
It is difficult, however, for a senator or small group of senators to muster support for the sacrifices needed from both parties to pass legislation in a closely divided Senate, where Republicans control 51 of 100 votes but find it hard to get the 60 votes needed to overcome filibusters. With control of the Senate appearing to be up for grabs in November, political self-sacrifice is not a priority for either party.
The next test for the Senate will come early this week when it resumes work on the corporate tax bill, only days after tariffs imposed by the European Union will have grown from 6 percent to 7 percent. First out of the box will be an amendment by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) to overturn limitations on overtime pay that were recently imposed by the Labor Department.
Republicans failed in two previous attempt to block such "non-germane" amendments and finally agreed, after protracted negotiations, to a list of as many as 80 amendments -- 50 of them from their own ranks -- that might be considered in connection with the bill. But Frist has not ruled out another bid to limit amendments, which could provoke another filibuster fight.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company