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Unhappy holidays in a partisan Senate

With the healthcare bill making slow progress and senators working early mornings and late nights through the season, divisions between Democrats and Republicans are even sharper than usual.

December 19, 2009|By Richard Simon and James Oliphant

Reporting from Washington — In this season of good cheer and glad tidings, Congress has become one of the meanest places on Earth.

Republicans recently angered Democrats by invoking a rarely used rule that required reading legislation aloud on the Senate floor for nearly three hours. Democrats infuriated Republicans by denying the customary courtesy of allowing a senator to speak on her amendment before it came up for a vote.

When one senator was denied an additional minute to finish his remarks -- normally an unremarkable indulgence -- Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) griped: "I don't know what is happening here in this body, but I think it is wrong."

In the august world of Senate traditions, this is akin to a knife fight.

"Partisan politics became a blood sport in Washington, D.C. It's a blood sport on the floor of the United States Senate," Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) said on the Senate floor. "It pervades the entire town."

Relations between the two parties have long been bitter. But in the last two weeks, an overhaul of financial industry regulations, a jobs bill and a big spending bill passed the House without a single Republican vote. In the Senate, a health bill stripped of its most prominent liberal provisions is still failing to win any Republican support.

As they grapple with a massive healthcare bill, tensions in the Senate have been heightened by early-morning and late-night votes, at a time when House members have gone home for the holiday season.

Senators are due to meet today for their third straight weekend session, and face the prospect of a rare and undesired vote on Christmas Eve.

All year, the two parties have failed to join hands in passing legislation, driven by philosophical differences and the demands of their core supporters to go their separate ways.

But now, with the healthcare bill making slow progress through Congress, divisions are even sharper. Senate Democrats have been frustrated in rounding up the 60 votes they need to pass the health legislation, and Republicans have used an array of tactics to stall the bill, extending the time available to peel away votes.

GOP leaders in the Senate have been feeling heat from Rush Limbaugh and other conservatives to step up their efforts to kill the bill.

"There is no Christmas spirit on Capitol Hill," said Donald F. Kettl, dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy. "The effort to give everyone health insurance has created an army of congressional Grinches."

So toxic is the atmosphere that the chamber's No. 2 Democrat, Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, appealed to colleagues this week to set aside political differences "in the spirit of the holiday" season. He drew upon an example set during World War I, when British and German troops called a Christmas truce and played a game of soccer.

Usually, the Senate's rules of decorum mask the underlying partisan passions. Members refer to each other as "my good friend."

But this week, freshman Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), presiding over the chamber, refused to grant Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) an extra minute to finish his remarks.

Lieberman was startled. "Really?" he said in surprise.

"That's how the comity in this body has deteriorated," McCain complained Friday. "We have to stop this behavior."

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) upset Democrats by requiring clerks to read the text of a 767-page amendment for three hours before its sponsor withdrew it in frustration.

And before dawn Friday, Republicans forced Democrats to bring the wheelchair-bound Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), age 92, to the floor to help his party overcome Republican roadblocks to a Pentagon spending bill.

It was a rare spectacle: Republicans, normally quick to support the military, were holding up a war-spending measure. But their move had nothing to do with the troops and everything to do with stalling the healthcare bill.

"Clearly, nerves have been rubbed raw," said Ross Baker, a professor at Rutgers University and an expert on the Senate. "Republicans feel excluded, very much in the same way Democrats felt excluded before the 2006 elections," when the GOP ruled the upper chamber.

The Senate's top Republican, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, has made no apology for trying to slow down the process. He commented Friday at a news conference held, ironically, in the Capitol room named after longtime Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, a Democrat well-known for reaching across the aisle.

McConnell agreed that griping about the very tactics that his own party employed when it ran the Senate was similar to Claude Rains feigning shock at the gambling in "Casablanca." "Well, that is my favorite movie," McConnell said with a smile.

Republicans are grumpy because they say have been shut out of drafting the health legislation. They say they are willing to do what's necessary to kill what they regard as a flawed bill.

"The longer the bill is out there, the less support it has from the public," said John Hart, a spokesman for Coburn. "The reason for the delay is to give the American people more time to study the bill."

Baker, the Rutgers professor, said that Republicans were not merely playing politics with their delaying strategy.

"They're not doing it just to torture the president," he said. "Most Republicans think it's bad public policy."

Of course, discord in the world's most deliberative body is nothing new. And Baker noted that while the atmosphere appears poisonous to outsiders, some of it is designed for show.

"It's not that friendships don't cross party lines," he said. "You just don't want to be seen in public with your arm around the other guy anymore."

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