The Senate ground to a halt Wednesday in a display of what an individual senator can do to protest his treatment by some of Capitol Hill's most powerful barons.
Instead of passing a $33.5 billion measure funding energy and water projects and then moving on to other business, the chamber slogged through a 30-hour protest by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who halted further legislative business after one of his pet ideas was dropped from the bill.
At issue is one of Coburn's top issues — greater transparency in government — as well as his sworn enemy, the powerful Appropriations Committee. Coburn had added to the energy and water bill a provision requiring reports that agencies are required to send to the appropriations panels be made available to other lawmakers and to the public. It's part of his drive for greater transparency in government.
Coburn's amendment won routine Senate approval in July but was dropped during House-Senate talks last month. Under Coburn's plan, reports such as one on the Energy Department's financial balances and a Nuclear Regulatory Commission report on barriers to building new nuclear power plants would have to be posted online right away. He's added similar language to several other bills.
"What is it we don't want the American people to see," Coburn said.
Only 30 more hours of debate
The Senate easily beat back a Coburn filibuster of the House-Senate measure. That means debate can only go on for a maximum of 30 more hours. Typically, however, once a filibuster is blocked, the chamber moves to a final vote on the legislation fairly quickly — or it at least moves on to other business rather than simply wasting time.
But under Senate rules, any single member can force the 30 hours to run. In the current situation, that means a final vote would have to wait until about 6 p.m. Thursday.
There's more to the protest, however, than spite. By putting the Senate through this pain, Coburn hopes that other negotiators wouldn't drop comparable Coburn provisions.
"It's the only leverage he has," said Coburn spokesman John Hart.
The situation had the top Senate Democrat steaming.
"It's wasted time," griped Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. "We spend hours, days on this floor doing nothing." He said the Senate could have instead worked on extending unemployment benefits or passing a popular Defense Department policy bill.
The top House negotiator, Rep. Ed Pastor, D-Ariz., didn't recall why his side insisted that the Senate drop the transparency provision. But a Democratic aide said later that there is concern that making every report public automatically might cause agencies to be less candid in their dealing with the Appropriations Committee. The aide required anonymity to speak candidly.