Senate Republicans, led by new Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, entered 2015 with a simple goal: Get the Senate working again.
“It’s time to change the business model,” he said earlier this year. “We need to return to regular order. We need to get committees working again. Sometimes, it’s going to mean working more often. Sometimes, it’s going to mean working late. But restoring the Senate is the right thing to do.”
That’s why Senate Republicans opted to kick off the new Congress with a bipartisan bill to approve the Keystone XL Pipeline, with an open debate and amendment process no less, rather than a red meat issue like repealing Obamacare or undoing the president’s executive order to allow undocumented immigrants to stay in the country.
The right tone needed to be set. And it was. Sen. McConnell allowed more amendment votes in the first month of the year than Sen. Harry Reid did in the entire previous year. Things moved incredibly slow, the debate stretched into the wee hours of the morning, and there was far more talking than doing, but it felt like the Senate again.
Unfortunately, Democrats, under the continued guidance of Harry Reid, are opting for gridlock rather than progress. As National Journal’s Ron Fournier writes, “The Democratic Party has a Harry Reid problem.”
Take, for instance, Sen. Reid’s threat to block a bipartisan bill known as the “doc fix,” which would provide long-term certainty for physicians who accept Medicare and the patients they treat. POLITICO called the deal a “major breakthrough both in terms of government policy and House politics” and the New York Times’ labeled it a deal “as politically remarkable as it is substantive,” and yet Sen. Reid and a handful of Democrats have nevertheless been working feverishly to undermine it.
This puts Democrats in a real quandary. The deal was agreed to by Speaker Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (an odd pairing if there ever was one) and will primarily help low-income seniors and working class families. But Sen. Reid is willing to trade those gains in order to demand the inclusion of language to ensure that abortion providers don’t lose money that is set to expire under the Affordable Care Act. Interestingly, this seems to run counter to his demands of Republicans when his party controlled the majority. POLITICO’s David Nather reports:
When Democrats ran the Senate in the previous Congress, they cut deals of their own with Boehner. Time and again, then-Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) urged the speaker to defy the Republican right and come more to the center.
The fact that Boehner is now doing precisely that with Pelosi is what makes the politics of the House bill so intriguing. But if the Senate Democratic response is to go into a sulk, the party risks further isolating itself.
Of course, that is exactly what Democrats are doing. Just last week Sen. Reid walked away from a bipartisan bill that would have provided monetary and other aid to victims of sex trafficking because he claimed to suddenly discover that the bill prohibited the funds being used to fund abortions. When Republicans offered up a compromise, it was rejected without a second though. That led the Washington Post editorial board to opine:
Perhaps Democrats thought they could score political points, or maybe they didn’t want to anger their traditional allies in the abortion rights lobby. Either way, it became depressingly clear that what they weren’t thinking about was the needs of vulnerable people, mostly young women and girls, who are the victims of sex trafficking.
Democrats are employing a similarly ruthless political tactic in the debate over the budget. In that instance, Sen. McConnell has continued his commitment to hearing a wide range of amendments regardless of which party they belong to. As the Washington Post reports, Democrats have sought to twist this to their advantage:
Democrats say a handful of amendments will put Republicans in a difficult position in which they will sacrifice something no matter what they choose. The Democratic strategy: Tack right in the votes, and we’ll go after you in the general election. Move left, and your competitors will eat you alive in the primary.
Fortunately, Republicans are unfazed.
“We’ll just do the right thing,” Portman said. “I’m not concerned about the number of amendments and healthy debate. I think it’s a good thing. And you know we’ll have issues to deal with climate change and economic growth and we’ll have the opportunity on the budget to get our points of view across.”
Restoring the Senate, just like a healthy debate, is the right thing to do. Sadly, only one party appears guided by that ethos.