By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, November 4, 2009
The senators' nameplates were lined up neatly on the green felt. A row of black leather chairs awaited senatorial bottoms. The microphones were live and the water iced.
But something was missing as the Senate environment committee took up its landmark climate-change bill on Tuesday morning: Republicans. The members of the minority party, unhappy with the legislation, settled on a novel strategy. They refused to show up.
The Democrats shrugged off the legislative boycott and spent the morning living out their fantasy: a world without Republicans. A contest hadn't been so lopsided since the 1980 Moscow Olympics, when the Soviets won most of the medals because of an American-led boycott.
"The Republican Party has increasingly become the party of 'no,' " announced Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who sits on the Democratic side. "President Obama ran on the campaign model of 'Yes, we can,' and our Republican friends seem to be saying 'No, we won't.' "
No objection was heard.
"I find it shocking to see the empty chairs there," said Sen. Frank Lautenberg (N.J.), beckoning across the U-shaped table and scolding the "duck-and-run" Republicans. He alternately likened the minority to "a child staying out of school because he doesn't like what the teacher is providing," and to soldiers gone AWOL. "You had a responsibility when you were called to duty to show up, even if you disagreed with the strategy," he lectured.
Nobody argued the point.
Even Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, a Democratic convert, found his former GOP colleagues behaving in a "very, very unfortunate" manner. "We have a practice in the world's greatest deliberative body of disagreeing without being disagreeable. But you can't disagree with an empty chair."
As Specter spoke, the distinguished Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio -- a Republican! -- made his way toward the table. Voinovich, who is retiring next year, delivered an emotional appeal to halt proceedings until the EPA could thoroughly analyze the bill. "What I'm doing today is I'm pleading to you and to the chairman, as a matter of the golden rule or the second great commandment, or just -- just decency," he said, his voice breaking. "This is not something on my part that I'm trying to con you out of. . . . I think we can get something done. I'm asking Madam Chairman and I'm asking this committee: Give us some time."
But Madam Chairman, Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), was not inclined to give Voinovich even enough time to finish his statement. "You finished your 12 minutes," she informed him before he was done.
"Can I ask for another three minutes?" Voinovich asked.
"I'll give you another minute," Boxer countered. "I've got colleagues that just don't have time."
Democrats are calculating that the Republican boycott will further cement the public impression that the minority party's only concern is trying to stop President Obama's agenda at any cost. But in overriding the GOP boycott, Democrats risk poisoning the environment on Capitol Hill even more and provoking additional delays by the minority.
There was, for example, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse's questioning of the integrity of Voinovich, a well-regarded lawmaker. "The senator from Ohio said that what he was engaged in was not a ruse," the Rhode Island Democrat said, but the claim "does not seem to stand up." Whitehouse added that "on the 'trust but verify' aspect of 'This is not a ruse,' I'm not sold."
Undoubtedly, it was cathartic for the Democrats. But they soon discovered a nefarious side effect of the boycott: boredom. Boxer, who had pledged not to take up amendments without Republicans, didn't have enough Democrats to keep the hearing going, so she repeatedly pleaded with Republicans to reconsider.
"Our door is open; the invitation stands," she said at the start of the hearing. Later, calling on Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) for a statement, she offered: "Take as much time as you'll consume, because we don't have anybody else here."
"We're waiting for our Republican friends to show up," contributed Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.). "We'll wait and wait."
Boxer began to sound as if she were the host of a telethon. "I want to appeal with respect. . . . We're going to just be here every single day until they join us. . . . This door will be wide open. . . . Please join us. . . . This door will be unlocked."
But, except for Voinovich's brief visit, nobody came. Eventually, even the Democrats left, except for Boxer. "I guess at this point I'm going to just sit here and wait till they show up," she said, consulting her watch. The hearing had begun three hours earlier.
"I will just sit here for a bit," she said later. "Talk among yourselves."
Boxer checked her BlackBerry and rearranged her papers. C-SPAN filmed the empty seats. "Chairman Boxer (D-CA) is waiting for Republican members to come to this meeting," the network flashed on screen. After 15 minutes of silence, the lone senator in the room tapped the gavel. "We're going to stand in recess," she said.