washingtonpost.com
Senate having trouble 'doing business in the modern era'

By Philip Rucker and David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, December 12, 2010; 7:06 PM

Last week, the U.S. Senate failed for the first time in 48 years to pass an annual bill authorizing money for national defense - not over disagreement about the part of the bill that would repeal a ban against gays serving openly in the military but on procedural grounds. Moderate lawmakers inclined to support the bill balked Thursday when a vote was called what they considered to be too soon.

Before that, the Democrats who control the Senate failed in their efforts to stop filibusters on three other bills, including one that would provide long-term medical care for Ground Zero emergency workers who developed health problems after helping victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

In a single afternoon, the Senate rebuked two constituencies revered by both parties: the military and the Sept. 11 rescuers.

The confounding actions left many in Washington to wonder whether this was an example of the dysfunction that increasingly seems to paralyze the Senate, the inevitable consequence of having a largely lockstep minority, or simply poor strategy by Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), who put some lawmakers in impossible binds. Or maybe all of the above.

An institution designed to chew over legislation slowly, refining and moderating bills passed by the House, now routinely chokes on them.

"Other than some exceptional moments, like health care, the Senate has a lot of trouble doing business in the modern era," said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history at Princeton University. "Partisanship, combined with the rules of the Senate, make for an institution that doesn't like . . . to act at all."

After spending months consumed by debates over health care and financial regulations, lawmakers left little time to address the litany of other issues before them, creating a backlog including the hot-button issues of tax cuts for the wealthy.

And the partisan tensions are flaring, with the Democratic majority humbled by an electoral rout in November and the Republican minority emboldened.

"It's an emotionally frayed body right now, which tends to exacerbate the worst instincts of the place," said Michael Meehan, a former top aide to Senate Democrats.

The events of last week illustrate a pair of seemingly contradictory trends, both brewing for decades. One is the hardening of the two parties. In the 1950s, famed Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson (D-Tex.) could attract support from moderate Republicans - which let him overcome defections of conservative Democrats.

Now, Republicans, at least, largely vote as one.

But at the same time that Republican and Democratic senators grew apart politically, they became even more reluctant to fight in the open. Senate history from the 1950s and 1960s is marked by long filibusters in which senators held forth for hours about things they disliked.

Now, that tradition has evolved so that stand-up-and-talk filibusters are rarely required. But the threat to filibuster, made without fanfare or spectacle, is a constant.

During Johnson's three terms as majority leader, from 1955 to 1961, there was only one time when a vote was called to break a filibuster. In the past two years, there have been 84.

Senate procedures now require that most controversial bills face two such "cloture" votes: one before they are taken up and another before they can be voted on.

It doesn't matter which party has the majority; if it doesn't have 60 senators, the body can't even hold a vote on legislation it wants to pass.

Last week, the unique conditions of a lame duck session made it a test case for the Senate's problems. Reid could not avail himself of LBJ-style maneuvers, using threats or promises of public-works projects to bring Republicans along.

"There's not a member up here that would agree to these bullying tactics in this day and age," Reid spokesman Jim Manley said. "For those harkening back to the golden years, they're completely misreading the current situation."

Today, Manley said, it takes 60 votes to pass anything, and Reid didn't have them.

"Sen. Reid has kept his caucus united through thick and thin," Manley said. "Unfortunately, so has [Senate Minority Leader Mitch] McConnell."

This was in plain view Thursday afternoon, when the Senate voted on whether to advance the massive defense bill that would repeal "don't ask, don't tell" as well as provide pay raises for troops. Senate Democratic leaders had been negotiating with Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and other moderate Republicans who indicated they would support the bill but wanted four days of debate and the ability to offer 10 amendments.

Republicans, led by McConnell (R-Ky.), also wanted to consider legislation to extend Bush-era tax cuts before any other bills.

The bipartisan talks collapsed when Reid ordered a roll-call vote. Collins interrupted, angrily waving her arms about the process. And in the end, the 60 votes required to prevent a filibuster and advance the bill were not there.

"You're not going to get our cooperation when you take these bills and you bring them up with no real certainty as to how we can participate in the debate and how many amendments we can offer," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said.

Senators always have expected time to debate issues. In a lame-duck session, that luxury does not exist.

"The Senate takes time," said David Hoppe, who worked as chief of staff for former Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.). "Part of the reason the pressure cooker is so hot here is there are very few chances for people to let off steam. If you let people go down there and offer amendments and discuss these things, that will help relieve a lot of the pressure."

Added Meehan: "Senators are actually individual nation-state elected officials, so they very much want to at least procedurally guarantee that they have those rights."

An exasperated Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who said she would have voted to repeal "don't ask, don't tell" had there been more time to debate the measure, blamed the breakdown on Reid.

"He had a path forward, and he chose not to do it," she told reporters as she came off the Senate floor. "He shut it down."

ruckerp@washpost.com fahrenthold@washpost.com

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company