Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) second from left, with fellow… (Shawn Thew / EPA )
Much of what happens in Congress isn't about governing or setting policy, it's about creating campaign issues for the next election. That's because the No. 1 item on the legislative agenda is determining who'll get to set the legislative agenda.
As lamentable as that may be, there's a good reason for it. House rules give the majority tremendous power to stifle the minority. And in the Senate, the majority can wield absolute control over what gets debated and legislated, although the filibuster effectively gives the minority veto power over anything the majority tries to pass.
Anyway, the House GOP has spent the last three days not trying to end the partial government shutdown that began Tuesday but trying to make Democrats look like ogres. They've passed a series of narrow bills to temporarily fund specific, popular federal efforts -- for example, ensuring food and drug safety, conducting medical research and operating national monuments -- and blasted Democrats for opposing them.
For example, not long after the House passed a bill to reopen the National Institutes of Health until mid-December, the campaign arm of the House GOP sent out a press release trumpeting the "no" vote by Rep. Julia Brownley (D-Westlake Village) headlined, "Brownley Votes Against Funding for Cancer Patients." One can only imagine the 30-second ads that we'll see during next year's campaign.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has refused to take up the rifle-shot funding bills that are piling up in the Senate, exposing him to questions like this one from CNN's Dana Bash, referring to the House GOP's mini-funding bill for the National Institutes of Health: "If you can help one child with cancer, why wouldn't you do it?" Reid's explanation for the Senate's refusal to take up such bills -- "What right did they [House Republicans] have to pick and choose what part of government's going to be funded?" -- came across as legalistic and heartless.
Regardless, the White House has said President Obama will veto the piecemeal bills if they somehow reach his desk. His stance and Reid's have led Republicans to accuse Democrats of stonewalling, and they've repeatedly asked why the Senate won't negotiate over a temporary funding bill. Democrats respond that Republicans are engaged in a "cynical deception," as Rep. David Price (D-N.C.) put it Friday, and note that the House GOP refused to negotiate a budget agreement that could have averted the current impasse.
On Friday, the House took up a mini-continuing resolution that would temporarily fund the Federal Emergency Management -- a hot topic with Tropical Storm Karen bearing down on the Gulf Coast. Once again, Democrats found themselves in the uncomfortable position of trying to explain that they didn't oppose a valuable federal program, they just opposed funding it all by its lonesome. Noting that the Small Business Administration, the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Resources Conservation Service and other federal agencies involved in disaster response wouldn't be funded, Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) said: "They need to work as a team, but here we are.... The fact is, the whole federal government needs to be put back to work."
Regardless of the merits of arguments like Moran's, they're not as compelling politically as "Brownley Votes Against Funding for Cancer Patients." Nor have Democrats found a way to force Republicans to cast a vote anywhere near that tough during the current shutdown. They've tried a succession of procedural maneuvers to force an up-or-down vote on the Senate's proposed stopgap funding bill, which a small but growing number of disaffected House Republicans have said they would support, but none has worked.
And so the bickering and finger-pointing continues. Right after voting on the FEMA bill, the House took up a similar measure for the Women, Infants and Children supplemental nutrition program. It was ironic to see House Republicans stand up to defend WIC, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) said, given that they've voted to cut the program three years in a row, denying aid to hundreds of thousands of low-income Americans.
The heart of the dispute hasn't changed -- House Republicans won't agree to reopen the government unless the 2010 healthcare law is delayed or rolled back, which Democrats won't do -- but lawmakers are hardly talking about that anymore. Now it's just a succession of votes designed to make Democrats squirm, while obscuring the reason the government shut down in the first place.