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Mr. Woebegone Goes to Washington

When did the Senate become such a lonely, cynical place?


Illustration by Zohar Lazar  

When Barack Obama made his final push for a health-care bill last month, he successfully appealed to the better angels of those who serve in the House. But one peek in the Senate across the way, and it was clear the hell-raisers were still putting up a valiant fight. Within 24 hours of the House vote, John McCain told an Arizona radio affiliate that people should expect no cooperation with Democrats for the rest of the year: “They have poisoned the well in what they’ve done and how they’ve done it.” Two days after that, Republicans were shutting down committee hearings, and as soon as they got the fixed health-care bill from the House—which Democrats hoped to pass in pristine form, since that would send it straight to the president’s desk—they tacked on 41 juicy amendments, most of them imaginatively conceived to humiliate the Democrats (like Tom Coburn’s now-famous proposal to deny sex offenders federally funded Viagra).

I visited the Senate on the last day it was considering those 41 amendments. The nearly daylong marathon, unofficially known as Vote-o-Rama, had taken its toll: There were bags under the men’s eyes and the women’s faces weren’t quite the perfect frescoes of makeup they usually are. The senators had been there until 2:45 the night before, and here they all were again, at 9:45. “It’s very partisan, and it’s not fun, and it’s not productive,” conceded Jon Kyl, the minority whip, as he raced to a meeting.

So why bother, if it’s infuriating even to you?

“You hope for a better day,” he said, and hurried on.

For all the fine effort that Barack Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi put into passing health-care reform, its success was really a fluke as far as the Senate is concerned. The measure squeaked through on the basis of an exception (a fleeting Democratic supermajority) and a technicality (reconciliation requires only 50 votes). Before that, the Senate of the 111th Congress had been an awesomely inefficient body, threatening the most filibusters and reauthorizing appallingly few bills; almost every Democrat had a story about legislation held hostage. This October, when Jeanne Shaheen, the newly elected senator from New Hampshire, attempted to pass a measure extending unemployment benefits, it spent a month in limbo (holds, objections, etc.) before the Senate passed it by a vote of 98-0, suggesting lawmakers spent a full month dickering over a measure that pretty much everyone agreed to from the start. “The extent to which the Senate rules keep things from happening has been a little surprising,” Shaheen told me when I asked her about it. “That, and the partisanship.”

And this gridlocked mode is just where the Senate found itself when it concluded its business ten days ago—with Vote-o-Rama, bleak predictions about the future of bi-partisanship, and (for good measure) Coburn rolling in front of another attempt to extend federal unemployment benefits. And that is likely where the Senate will find itself when members come back from recess next week.

All of which makes you wonder: What exactly are these people here for? Why are ordinarily productive legislators like John McCain saying they’re essentially on strike? “That’s the most exaggerated report in history,” says McCain when I ask him. “The fact is, they won’t cooperate on things that they want in order to get their agenda done.”

When Obama was stumping for health-care legislation, he put this very question to lawmakers: Did you come to Washington to do anything? Or did you come here for silly season? In fact, it was a senator, South Carolina’s Jim DeMint, who gave Obama an assist in crystallizing this question in the first place, by making political hay of health-care reform in a conference call: “If we’re able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo. It will break him.”

Of course, it’s the Senate Republicans’ prerogative to thwart or vote against Obama’s initiatives. For many of them, it’s as much a matter of principle as politics. (If the shoe were on the other foot, and Senate Democrats were working en masse to block tax cuts for the superrich, they’d surely claim it was out of principle.) Many of them didn’t come to the Senate to pass Obama’s version of a climate-change bill or immigration reform, and some, like McCain, are facing a difficult primary challenge from the tea-party right. But in the aftermath of the startling passage of health-care reform, both parties now find themselves at a crucial juncture, struggling to arrive at the right balance between kowtowing to their bases and trying to govern. The Republicans must decide whether to collaborate with the Democrats or obstruct them. The Democrats must decide whether they’ll nudge closer to the middle in order to pass legislation, or hew closely to their ideals and gain political points by characterizing the GOP as the Party of No. Whatever each side decides, all eyes will be on the Senate: Because of the chamber’s rules, it has far more power to thwart legislation than the House.


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