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A Horse and Pony Show

By Dana Milbank
Friday, February 6, 2009

Lawmakers, the saying goes, are either workhorses or show horses. As they debated the economic stimulus package yesterday, senators took this truism a step further: The workhorses and the show horses split into rival herds and began whinnying at each other.

The workhorses -- an ad hoc group of 18 moderates and dealmakers from both parties -- holed up in a committee room on the third floor of the Dirksen Building, tossed out their staff and got to work on a compromise plan that could get bipartisan support.

The show horses -- including the leadership of both parties -- gave speeches on the Senate floor and news conferences either to trade blame for partisan deadlock or to denounce the Group of 18's dealmaking efforts.

The workhorses, taking a lunch break so some of them could confer with the White House about the compromise, were pleased with their labors.

"It is unusual to think of senators actually doing that kind of painstaking, thorough work," said Susan Collins (Maine), leader of the Republican workhorses.

"Always refreshing to be able to do that," added Ben Nelson (Neb.), captain of the Democratic workhorses.

But 10 minutes later, Senate Democratic leaders pranced into a news conference and trampled on the workhorses' work.

"As I have explained to the people within that group, they cannot hold the president of the United States hostage," fumed Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.). "If they think they are going to rewrite this bill and Barack Obama's going to walk away from what he has been trying to do for the American people, they've got another thought coming."

Holding the president hostage? This caused the workhorses to rear up.

"Oh, goodness, no," said Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) as he returned to the dealmaking table in Dirksen. "I'm for human rights."

And Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) chuckled at her leader's accusation. "A little dramatic, don't you think?"

No doubt. But show horses prefer drama to lawmaking. While the dealmakers went through their paces behind the closed doors of the committee room, the show horses came out of the gate yesterday with unbridled partisanship.

"Republicans have tried to improve this bill," Mitch McConnell (Ky.), the Republican leader, said as he kicked off the day's debate. "Democrats have rejected these efforts."

Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) held a copy of the bill in the air. "If you believe this is a good process to spend $800 billion, we're on different planets," he said.

"I find it really rather amazing that the senator is holding up a bill," said Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). "That's theatrics."

Boxer tried to interrupt the Republican again, but Graham refused. "No -- it's my time," he said. "I'm here to point out the fact that it is not bipartisanship."

That hardly needed pointing out. But Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) didn't mind beating a dead horse. "To have as little support thus far as we're getting from the Republican side of the aisle shows how out of touch, frankly, my colleagues are."

While the show horses traded insults on the floor, the dealmakers stepped out of their horse-trading session to give a progress report. Nelson claimed that Democratic leaders "recognize that we have the opportunity to bring about bipartisan support of this."

Oh? Minutes later, Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), meeting with reporters on the first floor of the Capitol, declared that efforts to cut the cost of the package "are lopping off jobs."

Schumer joined in the disparagement. "We'd rather pass a good bill with 65 votes than a bill that doesn't work with 80 votes," he said. "We are not just going to make this bill ineffective for the sake of winning people who are . . . not listening to the election."

When they weren't condemning the bipartisan effort, the men spent the balance of the news conference condemning the Republicans.

"They're carping on trifles," Durbin said.

"It takes two to tango, and the Republicans aren't dancing," Schumer submitted.

"We believe that we can find two Republicans of goodwill who are going to do the right thing for the country," Reid said. Namely, vote for the Democrats' plan.

Back on the floor, Republicans engaged in their own horseplay. Tom Coburn (Okla.) threatened to hold up proceedings until "the next 15 amendments that I've got have a scheduled time to be brought up so the American people can hear of all the stinky stuff that's in this bill."

While the show horses strutted, the workhorses in the Dirksen building were coming into the homestretch. "We're not there yet, but that doesn't mean we're not going to get there," Nelson said, threatening to vote against his Democratic leaders.

"This group is really prepared to take some political heat to get the job done," Lieberman added.

"I'd say to the majority leader that his success depends on the success of this group," Collins warned.

For a brief but happy moment, the workhorses held the whip hand.

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