Political Maneuvers Delay Bill After Bill in Senate

During debate on a climate change bill this month, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, left, required that the 492-page bill be read aloud. He called the move payback for the failure of Majority Leader Harry M. Reid, right, to act on President Bush's judicial nominees.
During debate on a climate change bill this month, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, left, required that the 492-page bill be read aloud. He called the move payback for the failure of Majority Leader Harry M. Reid, right, to act on President Bush's judicial nominees. (Alex Wong - Getty Images)

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By Lori Montgomery and Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Senate went home yesterday for the Fourth of July holiday to face voters, having failed repeatedly to address critical economic issues from skyrocketing gas prices to climate change to the nation's housing crisis.

Leaders in both parties have vowed to tackle those problems. Yet the Senate has been unable to move forward even when there is broad agreement about what to do.

Take the housing rescue bill that collapsed this week: On a test vote, 83 senators supported provisions intended to halt the steepest slide in home prices in a generation. Still, the measure stalled, undone by a dispute over whether to add tax breaks for renewable energy production, an idea supported by 88 senators.

Lawmakers, lobbyists and independent analysts say that bill and other major legislation have been derailed by political maneuvering for an election likely to consolidate Democratic control over Congress and in which the sputtering economy tops the agenda. With each side using the Senate's byzantine rules to gain advantage, work in the upper chamber, always balky, has ground to a halt.

Senate Democrats accuse Republicans of adopting intransigence as a strategy to produce a "do-nothing" Congress. Senate Republicans acknowledge using delay tactics but say they are reacting to a heavy-handed Democratic majority that has denied them a voice on the Senate floor.

"Members recognize this is going to be a critical election. There's potential for dramatic change in the Senate and the House and the presidency. So both sides aren't willing to give an inch on messaging," said Brian Darling, director of Senate relations at the Heritage Foundation. "Both Republicans and Democrats have dug in their heels."

The Senate has managed to pump out a few big bills this year, including an economic stimulus package, which gave tax rebates to millions of Americans, and the farm bill, which directs agricultural spending. Late Thursday, the Senate approved a bill to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that also increases educational funding for veterans and extends unemployment benefits.

But the war spending bill was the sole victory in a week that otherwise dissolved in a frenzy of futility. In addition to delaying the housing bill until next month, the Senate left town without approving a long-awaited electronic surveillance measure and legislation to prevent physicians who accept Medicare from getting hit with a 10.6 percent pay cut.

The Medicare bill was a particular disappointment; it passed the House 355 to 59. But Senate Republicans used the filibuster rule, which requires 60 votes to end debate, to block the measure because of a dispute over small cutbacks in a program run by private insurers called Medicare Advantage. Doctors and advocates for the elderly were furious.

"A group of Republican senators followed the direction of the Bush administration and voted to protect health insurance companies at the expense of America's seniors, disabled and military families," American Medical Association President Nancy H. Nielsen said in a statement. "These senators leave for their 4th of July picnics knowing that the most vulnerable Americans are at risk because of the Senate's inability to act."

Housing advocates, consumer groups and business organizations have been equally frustrated by the glacial pace.

"It's a delay-of-game Congress," said R. Bruce Josten, executive vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "This Congress isn't addressing the issues that are foremost in the public's mind such as gasoline prices, economic anxiety and the housing crisis."


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