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Politics Daily: Is the Senate really broken?

Image: Harry Reid
Sen. Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., gestures during a press conference on the financial crisis in 2008. Evan Vucci / AP
/ Source: Politics Daily

The Senate is in one of those phases that make normal people wonder what on earth is going on in Washington, and possibly even what possessed the Founding Fathers who created the upper chamber. Writers are lamenting its decline, senators are laying plans for change, and some House members make .

The leader of the abandon-hope forces is New Yorker writer George Packer. In a piece headlined "," he says the Senate has managed only two lasting achievements in 18 months and now is "slipping back into stagnant waters." Washington Post columnist David Broder also takes a dim view. Teeing off from Packer, he bemoans the lack of in the Senate – people capable of "summoning the will to tackle overriding challenges in a way that almost shamed their colleagues out of their small-mindedness."

At the other end of the Senate assessment spectrum is Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). At a Christian Science Monitor breakfast last week, he allowed that the Senate 100 Club, with its quaintly esoteric rules and customs, "takes a bit of getting used to." But he asserted that it's working much the way the Founding Fathers envisioned: as "a place where time was taken, things were thought over and consensus was reached if consensus was appropriate."

Consensus has been rare of late, McConnell acknowledged, leading to a great many filibusters and Democratic chases to find 60 votes for cloture (the process that cuts off debate and allows the Senate to move forward). But that's to be expected when the two parties are in the middle of "a great debate about the future of the country," McConnell said. He also dismissed as no big deal the secret "holds" that senators put on bills and nominations, gumming up the works for weeks and even months. They're not usually secret, McConnell said, and sometimes they are the only way to draw attention to your (often ) point.

As for collegiality, no problem there, either. "Some of my best friends are Democrats," McConnell said, naming long-serving senators Harry Reid of Nevada and Chris Dodd of Connecticut. McConnell says he and Reid, the majority leader, are in constant, cordial talks on Capitol Hill to schedule votes and accommodate senatorial concerns and demands. "All the time, every day," he said, the pair juggle nominations, schedules, "nervous members" who don't want to vote on certain amendments and other members who won't vote for cloture unless certain amendments are allowed. "I don't think any of this is a threat to the nation," the Republican leader said mildly.

Somewhere between McConnell's insistent sunniness and the other side's black mood lies the real Senate – frustrating, dilatory, partisan, always making things harder than necessary, and in some ways a distortion of what the founders had in mind, but hardly stagnant.

The Underestimated Senate RecordSince President Barack Obama's inauguration in January 2009, the Senate has confirmed two Supreme Court nominees, revamped the student loan system and removed obstacles to women and others pursuing equal pay. The Senate also has approved three laws – the economic recovery act, the health care overhaul and financial regulatory reform – that contain within them scores of achievements. Had the major items in these bills been passed separately, the last 18 months would have been crammed with one success after another (or one tough defeat after another, depending on your party). This fall the Senate appears poised to pass a bill to help small businesses, and another to boost clean energy jobs and respond to the BP oil spill.

It's an impressive record, but it has not been treated that way. Part of the reason is that the journey has been ugly. McConnell and his crew are on track to match their 2007-08 record of forcing to end filibusters, while Democrats are taking the usual steps -- compromises, cajoling, -- to forge onward. Every move by each side is dissected 24/7 by countless armchair analysts on blogs, talk radio and cable TV.

The Senate also suffers from its high-profile failures, especially in contrast with the House. House rules make it far easier for the majority to prevail, and the Democrats -- with a -- have been moving at a breakneck pace. Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office lists 345 bills that as of July 9 had passed the House but not the Senate. This week she's calling all 435 House members back from recess to vote on a Senate bill giving strapped states money to help them pay for Medicaid and avoid laying off 300,000 teachers, police officers and firefighters. The House passed a similar bill last December, in plenty of time for school districts to make plans. The Senate finally passed its version Thursday.

Nothing captures the level of House frustration more than the Pelosi pushed through by seven votes in June 2009. At the time the breakthrough seemed to assure that the United States would take steps to put a price on carbon pollution, slow global warming and jumpstart expansion of the clean energy sector. But the Senate ran out of time, energy and political space to work toward compromise and 60 votes on yet another controversial issue. Pelosi was so annoyed that she reportedly vented to Reid and McConnell about the Senate's "" pace.

The upshot is that some Democrats and a handful of Republicans this fall will have to defend (or ) their votes for a cap-and-trade system that the GOP has branded "cap-and-tax" -- without having anything to show for the risks they took. "They have worst of both worlds," Democratic climate strategist Daniel Weiss told me. "They voted to invest in renewable energy. They voted to invest in energy efficiency. They voted to reduce pollution. Because of Senate inaction, none of those things is going to come to fruition."

McConnell denied there has been any motive beyond principle in the obstructionist tactics. However, that would hardly explain why six Republicans co-sponsored a deficit reduction commission then voted against it. Or what Packer calls "nakedly partisan, and outlandish" amendments to the health bill (such as one to guarantee mentally ill veterans the right to own firearms or another to deny convicted sex offenders the right to buy Viagra with taxpayer money).

McConnell also said he has used nothing but persuasion to get GOP senators to oppose various bills en masse. The tactic has served the party well by drawing clear contrasts, McConnell said: "We've had very, very good unity on almost all the major issues. And I think that's been important to our comeback."

High Stakes, High PressureVarious senators, however, have described to follow their leader rather than their inclinations. Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) voted yes on the recovery act, then felt compelled to switch parties. Packer reports on pressure on Sen. Olympia Snowe (D-Maine) to vote against the health reform bill she had helped shape. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) abandoned negotiations on climate and immigration bills. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn) worked on financial reform, but Democrats doubted Corker could deliver GOP votes and halted the bipartisan talks.

Broder recounted the bitter disappointment of "a conservative Republican senator with three years of seniority" at not finding the cross-party friendships Vice President Joe Biden had told him about or "the collegial, challenging body" his predecessor had described. The odds are high that the senator was Corker -- one of only , the only one whose predecessor (Bill Frist) is , and the only one who worked across party lines on high-profile issues.

Corker's public remarks suggest bitter disappointment with both parties. That is a reality. But so are floor proceedings on C-SPAN, which show senators in their native habitat, mostly treating one another nicely. Take for instance the close of the debate last month on the final version of financial reform. Dodd, the committee chairman who guided the bill and is retiring in January, thanked Republicans Corker and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) for work he said had improved the final product. Hutchison thanked Dodd for accommodating her concerns about community banks.

Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) congratulated Dodd for accomplishing so much in his final year ("and I have not agreed with all of it, by the way"). Gregg added: "Most importantly, he has done it in a fair and balanced way, always with a sense of humor and an openness and willingness to listen to those with whom he may not agree entirely." This effusive praise, of course, came after Gregg had to delay and block the bill in question.

Love it, hate it or both, that's our 21st-century Senate. Should it change, and if so, how much? Reid has scheduled a vote this fall on a bill to . That would be a modest and helpful change. So would a limit on filibusters (one Hill aide suggested a system modeled on NFL replay rules, under which coaches are allowed ). Other Senate watchers have proposed barring holds and filibusters under certain circumstances, or the votes needed to end a filibuster. Political scientist Jonathan Bernstein would let the majority party have that needs only a 51-vote majority to pass.

Senate veterans say members who want to eliminate the filibuster entirely, or even impose severe limits, are members who haven't served in the minority. Dodd urged 10 Democrats pushing for change to take that long view. That earned him this : "Dodd insists Senate remain paralyzed after he leaves." McConnell recounted the surprise result when Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) proposed eliminating the filibuster in January 1995, right after Republicans had taken over the Senate. "Every single Republican voted against changing the filibuster rule at a time when we would have most benefited from doing it," he said.

McConnell advised impatient junior Democrats to remember all the Senate has done over the last 200 years "to save America from the worst excesses." He might as well have added, "Just like we Republicans are trying to do now." It's what we at that breakfast all were thinking as we tried in our minds to untangle a Gordian knot of competing and shifting interests, and locate an answer to the core question: What kind of Senate would best serve not the partisans or the traditionalists or the young Turks, but the nation that depends on it?