Senate's deliberate pace frustrates the House

House Majority Whip James Clyburn, at right with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, has compared the Senate to the House of Lords.
House Majority Whip James Clyburn, at right with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, has compared the Senate to the House of Lords. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/associated Press)
By Perry Bacon Jr.
Tuesday, March 23, 2010

After passing historic health-care legislation Sunday and sending it to President Obama, House Democrats return to a familiar situation that has annoyed them for much of the past year: waiting for the Senate.

In that chamber rests the fate of not only the health-care changes that House lawmakers desperately want but also other major bills they have approved over the past year: legislation to combat climate change, a reform of the way financial firms are regulated, and provisions to combat youth unemployment that have been championed by the Congressional Black Caucus. The climate-change bill passed the House in June, the latter two measures in December.

"Tonight's vote is a true victory, but I'll wait until the Senate acts before I join the victory dance in the end zone," Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) said Sunday. "We are now relying on the Senate to pass the reconciliation bill or something better, like a public option. Unfortunately, the Senate has been less than reliable."

Overall, the House has approved more than 100 bills that are still tied up in the Senate.

Because of complicated rules that allow a single member to slow down the legislative process, the Senate has long irked House members. Even when the chambers are controlled by the same party, relations between the House and the Senate are tense.

Sam Rayburn, a Texas Democrat who was House speaker in the 1940s and 1950s, once said: "The Republicans are the opposition. The Senate is the enemy." And the current majority whip, James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), likened the Senate earlier this year to Britain's House of Lords -- the upper chamber of Parliament, in which some members inherit their positions.

The election in January of Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) further complicated the passage of any further major legislation between now and November. Republicans now hold 41 seats in the Senate, giving them the power to block bills through filibusters.

In the aftermath, House Democrats raged about the Senate taking weeks to pass a jobs measure that they approved in December and, in the process, stripping out measures that House members liked.

Reid has assured House leaders that he has the votes on health care to push past GOP opposition and pass changes to the health-care bill to remove provisions that had displeased the House. As for other measures, Reid spokesman Jim Manley said, "We're frustrated too," and blamed Republicans for slowing the Senate.

But at times, Senate Democrats themselves help block House priorities; a handful of them joined Republicans in opposing $1.3 billion in funding for youth jobs earlier this month.

In the wake of Sunday's vote, House Democrats are feeling less gloomy about the prospect of enacting legislation this year beyond health care.

The House Progressive Caucus, made up of the chamber's most liberal members, has bemoaned the Senate at times this year. But Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the caucus co-chairman, said, "Passing health care and the leadership the president has provided will give us a renewed sense of urgency, and I think that's going to give us momentum."

They also point to passage Monday by the Senate banking committee of a financial regulatory overhaul bill. And Democrats are trying to work with Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) to get bipartisan backing on climate change and on immigration reform -- another priority of many House members.

Graham has suggested, though, that the lingering divide between the two parties from health care could complicate cooperation on other issues.

Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this column.

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