Walter Pincus: A day in the dysfunctional life of the Senate

09/27/2012 4:07 PM

09/27/2012 4:07 PM

In his prayer that opened the Sept. 21 session of the U.S. Senate, Chaplain Barry C. Black recognized the political partisanship that has frozen legislative activity: “Make our lawmakers, this day, open to greater creativity in their convictions so that they may become partners with You in these challenging times by paying the price for unity.”

Not a chance: Prayer over – just five minutes later, back to bickering.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., began: “Over the past week, I have listened to my Republican colleagues come to the floor and lament how little the Senate has accomplished during the 112th Congress. I, above all, share that concern. In fact, it is a wonder we have gotten anything done at all, considering the lack of cooperation Democrats have gotten from Republican colleagues.”

That brought Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to his feet: “Yesterday, dozens of Republican senators came to the Senate floor one after the other to register their complete frustration with the way Democrats are running this place. Never before – never – has a president and a majority party in the Senate done so little to address challenges as great as the ones our nation faces right now – never.”

The quibbling wasn’t over.

The Democratic whip, Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., fired back: “I listened to the statement made on the floor by the Republican leader. It was a statement similar to one that was made yesterday.… I am disappointed that this session of Congress has been so unproductive, but I know the reason why. It isn’t for lack of effort.… We have consistently run into the same problem over and over. In the last six years … the Republicans have created 382 filibusters.” He spoke for another 25 minutes.

By the time things got down to business, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., took the floor for an hour for his bill to end “any direct United States assistance, loan guarantees or debt relief” to Libya, Egypt, Pakistan and any other nation where a U.S. diplomatic facility had been attacked or targeted. Aid could be restored if the secretary of state certified that the country was aiding in the investigation and arrest of those responsible and supported extradition of those the United States wanted.

Paul discussed past instances in which U.S. aid had supported dictators. He used Egypt’s former President Hosni Mubarak as an example, claiming that his daughter Alaa has yachts and property in the United States worth $8 billion, adding, “How much of the money that went to pay for these yachts for the Mubarak family is yours (meaning taxpayers’)?”

He made some valid points. But he also made exaggerated charges, such as: “We should be mad about the foreign aid, and so are the populations who are burning the American flag. They are mad because they did not receive the foreign aid.”

But like so much talk on the Senate floor lately, it was irrelevant – except to make points back home with those who think all foreign aid is a waste.

Paul had almost no support for his bill, which fell 81-10 in a vote after midnight. But conservative GOP senators had to take the floor to explain their opposition, lest constituents question their support of the administration’s aid program.

That Paul had won extensive debate time for a bill that never had a chance reflects another dysfunctional Senate element: the threat by one or more senators to filibuster an important measure – a move that delays the whole body.

On Sept. 21 that threat held up voting on the joint resolution making continuing appropriations for fiscal year 2013. That bill was needed to keep the government going through March because of another congressional dysfunction – the GOP-run House and Democratic-controlled Senate could not make hard funding choices before the Nov. 6 election.

While waiting to vote on the continuing appropriations resolution, agreement was reached to vote on a bipartisan joint “sense of the Congress” on Iran’s nuclear program. It notes that “time is limited” to prevent Iran from “acquiring a nuclear weapons capability” and “joins the president in ruling out any policy that would rely on containment as an option in response to the Iranian nuclear threat.” It also says, “Nothing in this resolution shall be construed as an authorization for the use of force or a declaration of war.”

One lesson from the George W. Bush administration was to make sure that such resolutions remain purely political and propaganda gestures. However, with 82 co-sponsors, the bill passed 90-1.

Only Paul opposed it, arguing, “A vote for this resolution is a vote for the concept of pre-emptive war.”

From 3 p.m. until after midnight, the Senate considered this mix of bills while lawmakers took shots at each other’s presidential candidate. The bill to keep the government going passed 62-30 – after 1 a.m.

At 1:40 a.m., with most members gone, bickering arose again when Reid tried to get unanimous consent to bring up the fiscal 2013 Defense Authorization Bill, a measure Republicans list as proof the Senate isn’t functioning well.

Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., objected, adding that he was bothered by the implication “that the leader (Reid) is all for taking it up and it is the Republicans who are objecting.”

The Senate needs more than prayer to end this bitter partisanship. No one seems to have a plan to get Congress working again other than having his or her party control the legislative and executive branches.

That attitude has to change.

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