"Gridlock, uncertainty, inaction, backlog, and delay: That is all the Senate is serving up these days,” Assistant Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell bemoaned on the Senate floor recently. “Gridlock, uncertainty, inaction, backlog, and delay is all that is on the menu in the Senate these days.”
It's a complaint coming from both parties this election year, and it's likely to get worse. With Democrats grumbling that Republicans are shutting them out of the legislative process -- and Republicans griping that Democrats are obstructing the Senate's progress -- the Senate is on the verge of a partisan breakdown.
Republicans are considering whether to force the issue of obstructionism on the Senate floor sometime in June. (They forced the issue of judicial nominations in a highly ineffective 39-hour reverse filibuster last fall, which resulted in President Bush making recess appointments of two of the stalled nominees early this year.) Never mind that Republicans are not only in the Senate majority but have control of the House and White House as well. Never mind that Republicans would have better luck getting things accomplished if they reached out to the other side, rather than ignoring them and their votes.
Of course, they don't see it this way. As McConnell said, “The price of obstruction is real. It is rising.” He noted that there is “little relief in sight” on pending bills involving transportation, energy, welfare reform, tort reform, and medical-lawsuit reform “due to obstruction by Democrats.”
Still, a few things have gotten done recently, most notably the corporate-tax measure that passed the Senate last Tuesday after being stalled for weeks. The Senate also recently pushed through 20 of the president's nominees for ambassadorships. What the Senate hasn't done is approve Democratic nominees for various positions. As Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle said on the floor last week, “We have over a dozen Democratic nominees who have not yet been given even vetting, much less the actual official nomination.”
Daschle went on: “We will continue to work with our Republican colleagues and with the administration, but we have to be given the confidence that there will be reciprocity and some degree of appreciation for the need to move all nominees, regardless of political affiliation or of position.”
Good luck. Daschle need look no further than Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist for why relations between the parties have grown so bad. It's Frist, after all, who has poisoned the Senate well by campaigning for Daschle's South Dakota challenger this fall. And when John McCain complained last month about partisan bickering over the presidential candidates' war records, Frist told Roll Call, “Most everything is fair game in a political season.”
What's happened is that a chamber that operates based on the trust lawmakers place in one another no longer works that way. How can they believe on another's word when scoring political points for the campaign is more important than governing, especially when control of the Senate hangs in the balance with each election? The fact that senators now spend so much time campaigning and raising money rather than breaking bread with other lawmakers doesn't help, either.
The problem for Republicans is that their plan is both bad politics and bad governing. With millions of Americans still out of work and/or facing the prospect of loved ones spending more time in Iraq and Afghanistan, they want to hear what lawmakers are doing to solve their problems, not about petty partisan bickering. Until Republicans gain the 60 votes needed to shut off debate, they're much more likely to accomplish their legislative goals if they include Democrats, which makes good governing sense as well.
But as Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid noted on the floor earlier this month, Republicans don't exactly have a good track record. Republicans didn't tell Democrats where the energy conference committee meetings were going to be held last fall. They did let Democrats in on the location of the Medicare conference and told them two lawmakers could attend. But when Democrats asked if more lawmakers could come, Republicans said no and then closed the meetings. “That is not what a conference is all about,” he said. Now, the transportation bill is being held up by, among other things, Republicans' refusal to let Democrats approve conference reports.
Republicans ran a national campaign on the theme of Democratic obstruction in 2002 and it worked: They picked up House seats and regained control of the Senate. They've had two years to produce results. You think they would have learned from Jim Jeffords' defection in 2001 that every vote counts and that it's important to court every lawmaker. Clearly, they haven't.
McConnell is right. There is too much gridlock in the Senate these days. Many congressional observers believe that not much more is likely to get done this year. Right now, there's not even an agreement on the fiscal year 2005 budget resolution. “Why don't we just go home … rather than go through this charade of telling Americans that we are legislating?” McCain asked recently. But that wouldn't make for a compelling election-year charge for Republicans. In terms of the campaign, they believe it's much better to have lawmakers sniping at one another than actually getting things done. As the impending Senate stalemate shows, isn't that what politics is all about these days?
Mary Lynn F. Jones is online editor of The Hill. Her column on Capitol Hill politics runs each week in the online edition of The American Prospect.