The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Congress’s inability to break gridlock could mean working through the holidays in Washington

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) walks to his office on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., December 11, 2020.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) walks to his office on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., December 11, 2020. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

As Congress voted to keep government agencies funded for another week, lawmakers began admitting something that was painfully obvious: They aren’t very likely to meet next Friday’s deadline, either.

The year-end gridlock, commonplace on Capitol Hill in the pre-pandemic era, has grown into a legislative staring contest between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), as the funding plan for federal agencies is stuck in limbo alongside the nearly $1 trillion outline for another coronavirus relief package. On top of that, President Trump has thrown the very bipartisan $741 billion Pentagon policy bill into doubt with demands for repeal of an unrelated social media protection, threatening to veto the military measure and creating even more disruptions.

The result is that many lawmakers now expect Congress to not just blow past their new deadline of Dec. 18 but also past the once sacrosanct Christmas holiday, which would set up the first substantive legislative sessions in the days leading up to New Year’s Eve since 2012.

“Unfortunately, we have politics and the pandemic. So it doesn’t look too good. We have a history here now of going to the 11th hour and 59th minute on all of this. And that’s very unfortunate. That’s where we are,” Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), the four-term lawmaker who is retiring whenever Congress finishes its work, said Friday.

“People do want to get home for the holidays, such as that is. But what’s more important is that we get the job done for the American people before the holidays,” Pelosi told reporters Thursday. “But we’ve been here after Christmas.”

In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, Congress came together and approved four major pieces of legislation worth nearly $3 trillion in health safety and economic stimulus funding. It even prompted a brief boomlet in popularity for the notoriously loathed institution.

But since the House and Senate began negotiating on a new package in early May lawmakers failed to meet those already low expectations, sending their approval ratings back into the gutter.

The past few days saw some bright spots, as the nation reels from nearly 300,000 dead from the coronavirus pandemic, rising unemployment and widespread economic hardship. The House and Senate approved the Pentagon legislation on sweeping bipartisan votes and veto-proof majorities; they also backed the one-week extension to avert a government shutdown.

Congress to send defense bill to Trump with veto-proof majorities

But substantive legislation has been rare in the divided Congress, and behind the scenes leaders made little headway on a coronavirus relief bill, leaving the hope for a massive funding measure for the rest of the year, known colloquially as an omnibus bill, also stuck. And tempers flared on a host of other issues, from a conservative objection to creating Smithsonian museums for Latinos and women to the majority of House Republicans signing a legal document suggesting they believe that the Supreme Court should effectively overturn the results of the election that Democrat Joe Biden won.

Trump has fixated on overturning his Nov. 3 election loss, abandoning any significant role in last-minute negotiations on the aid package.

Interrupting this dysfunction on the Senate floor have been the words of the senators whose terms are ending. Several used their farewell addresses to bemoan the broken institution they so loved.

“Lately, the Senate has become like joining the Grand Ole Opry and not being allowed to sing,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who is retiring after 17 years, said in his final Senate speech.

That was last week. Now Alexander is realizing that he will not be heading home, permanently, for another couple of weeks to finish all the must-pass items.

“So, if we don’t get those done, I guess we, we might stay,” said Alexander, who recently spent time playing Christmas songs on a piano in the rotunda of the Russell Senate Office Building.

Another departing senator, Tom Udall (D-N.M.), also expressed his frustration.

“I’m not the first to say this in a farewell address, and I won’t be the last, but the Senate is broken,” said Udall, who is leaving after two terms.

In his final days in office, Sen. Lamar Alexander waxes nostalgic

Testiness erupted on the Senate floor Thursday night when a bipartisan group of senators tried to pass a pair of bipartisan bills authorizing the construction of two new Smithsonian museums — a National Museum of the American Latino and an American Women’s History Museum.

Sens. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) rose to seek unanimous consent to create the Latino museum, asking for quick passage of a bill that passed the House in July on a voice vote, clearing the way for site selection, fundraising and ultimately construction.

Enter Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), who rose to object, fearing the further “cultural and identity Balkanization of our national community.”

“The last thing we need is to further divide an already divided nation with an array of segregated, separate-but-equal museums for hyphenated identity groups,” Lee said, saying he would instead support expanding the National Museum of American History to include wings on Latinos and women.

Menendez bristled at the suggestion, noting that a Smithsonian panel recommended 30 years ago the “establishment of one or more museums portraying the historical, cultural and artistic achievements of U.S. Hispanics.”

“It is 30 years of willful neglect,” he said. “And in the one chance we have . . . one Republican colleague stands in the way. One Republican colleague stands in the way. It is pretty outrageous.”

Menendez was further incensed by Lee’s suggestion that Latinos — unlike African Americans and Native Americans, who have their own Smithsonian museums — were not “uniquely, deliberately and systemically excluded” from American history and thus did not deserve a “separate, siloed museum.”

Retorted Menendez, one of four Latino senators, “Believe me, we have been, and the only righteous way to end that exclusion is to pass this bill.”

Later, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) rose in support of the women’s museum, which Lee also opposed on similar grounds.

“It seems wrong that one senator can block consideration of a bill that would have overwhelming support by a majority of this body,” Collins said, barely concealing her frustration. “Telling the history of American women matters.”

Lee proceeded to object anyway.

“I think this is a sad moment,” Collins said afterward, adding, “We will not give up the fight.”

As for a potential Trump veto of the defense bill, House Republicans say they would sustain the veto, raising the possibility that for the first time in 59 years, Congress won’t pass a defense authorization bill.

As Alexander left the Capitol on Friday, he was unsure when the issues would be resolved.

“I plan to go home for Christmas. But I’m subject — I’m still a United States senator, so I’ll be here if we’re voting,” he said.

Read more at PowerPost