A New Day in Washington, Same as the Old Days

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), left, listens as Sen. Judd Gregg responds to accusations about blocking the ethics bill.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), left, listens as Sen. Judd Gregg responds to accusations about blocking the ethics bill. (Photos By Alex Wong -- Getty Images)
By Dana Milbank
Friday, January 19, 2007

Just two weeks ago Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell stood side by side, pledging a "new day in Washington" full of bipartisan cooperation. Senators, McConnell said, wanted "to tackle the big issues."

Yesterday, Reid and McConnell started tackling -- each other.

While senators engaged in a bench-clearing brawl over ethics legislation, Reid and fellow Democrats abandoned the Senate floor and went to the television studio to condemn the Republicans. "What they wanted -- and they were afraid to spew it out of their mouths -- they hate this legislation!" Reid sputtered.

McConnell rushed into the studio minutes after Reid left. "Truly astonishing" is how he described the Democrats' argument. "Absurd on its face."

After a day of bitter exchanges, the two sides finally reached a deal behind closed doors and then went to the Senate floor last night in a public act of reconciliation. Reid praised the Republicans he had just berated. McConnell hailed a "successful example of good negotiating, though it took a while, for a favorable result."

It did seem to be a needlessly difficult journey for legislation that in the end was opposed by only two senators. Just last spring, a nearly identical bill sailed through the Senate with little fuss. On Jan. 4, Reid and McConnell agreed to be sponsors of the ethics bill, the first major piece of legislation before the Senate this session. Reid (Nev.) said that gesture "speaks volumes" about the new bipartisan spirit.

Few believed that boast, but neither did anybody expect what happened Wednesday night on the Senate floor. Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) tripped up the legislation by attempting to add an unrelated poison pill, and McConnell (R-Ky.) led a filibuster. The two sides reached a compromise, only for Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) to scuttle it with a procedural objection that wasn't resolved after nightfall Thursday.

Lawmakers were pointing fingers every which way. Was it Gregg, in the back room, with the non-germane amendment? Or was it McConnell, in the minority leader's office, with the filibuster? Maybe the real culprit was Byrd, on the Senate floor, with the unanimous-consent objection.

"Clearly, any excuse will do for them to bring down an ethics reform bill!" Dick Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, charged at a noon news conference.

Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.), facing the cameras with her fellow Democrats, agreed that "what we saw was the Senate Republicans, in a grand act of ethics hypocrisy, shatter the new culture of cooperation in an attempt to kill real reform."

"You can't say that the Republican Party and the Republican membership of the Senate is in any way not trying to move this bill forward," responded Gregg. "The stoppage here," he continued, "is occurring because there is an individual senator on their side who is threatening to filibuster this amendment. . . . I believe they do protest too much."

Democrats seemed to be enjoying themselves a bit too much as they held their news conference condemning the Republicans for temporarily derailing the ethics bill with a "line-item veto" amendment. Though they entered the room with grim faces, Sen. Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) could not suppress a grin. By the time the sixth Democratic speaker, Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) got her turn at microphone, Schumer, Russ Feingold (Wis.) and Barack Obama (Ill.) could be seen behind her, enjoying a chuckle.

"They just pulled the line-item veto rabbit out of a hat as an attempt to stop ethics reform," said Schumer, chairman of the Mixed Metaphor Committee. "The good-ethics train was moving swiftly right down the tracks until the Republicans stopped it, putting the line-item veto log in its path."

Gregg, in his dueling news conference, was defensive on this point. "This is not a line-item veto," he maintained. "This is enhanced rescission." The Republican admitted his proposal "doesn't survive the germaneness test," but he pleaded, "It is relevant."

Finally, in the evening, Gregg and Byrd were placated, and the Senate returned to business. But would subsequent bills be any easier? Reid wasn't optimistic. "I mean, they're not wild about anything I've talked about," he told reporters.

As senators struggled over their ethics disagreement, Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), the minority whip, went to the Senate floor late yesterday. "We've been out here marking time all afternoon," he complained. "Helloooo," he called out to the empty chamber. "It's a quarter to 6."

"This is the kind of thing that I think leads to problems and tarnishes our image, and I wish we could find a way to do things in a more normal way," Lott's lament continued. "But maybe the Senate can't do that."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company