More Kabuki Than Christmas In The Senate

It's hard to imagine anything further from the spirit of Christmas than what's going on this holiday week in the U.S. Senate.

Not much peace on this scorched Earth. And don't even think about goodwill toward men.

"We'll be here until Christmas" was once a threat used by party leaders to compel colleagues to business when a year's session ran past Thanksgiving. Those leaders knew the prospect of disrupted family plans would focus senatorial minds. As the holiday approached, deals got done and differences mended. Once the outcome of an issue was clear, someone gave in and everyone went home.

Not so in the Senate of 2009, where no threat seems idle anymore.

That is why the Kabuki theater of filibusters, cloture petitions, 30-hour waiting periods and post-midnight cloture votes has been going on for three weeks without a day off. And it is why that dance is likely to continue late on Christmas Eve.

The chamber's famous quality of comity has been in dwindling supply for some time, but each round of voting on the health care bill seems to bring new causes of ill feeling. The latest low point came on Sunday, when Sen. Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, said, "What the American people ought to pray is that someone can't make the vote tonight."

Democrats took umbrage at that. Anyone might have problems making a 1 a.m. vote on snowbound Capitol Hill. But Democrats sensed a reference to their senior-most member, 92-year-old Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, who has been in fragile health.

So far, Byrd has answered the bell every time. But he and other loyalists have been upstaged by a few holdout Democrats whose vote must be begged for and bought. Each wants to be the courted keeper of the 60th vote when his party needs a three-fifths majority to forestall a filibuster. And their party needs that 60th vote every day, because the Republicans have gone to the barricades, threatening a filibuster on every bill and procedural step.

In order to finish health care before Christmas, Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada has lined up the must-do bills and procedural steps like cars on a freight train. Republicans know that if they knock one off in the line, the whole train can be sent off the rails.

The most remarkable case of this came late last week, when the GOP minority threatened a filibuster on the annual appropriations bill for the Department of Defense. Using the same tactic that it has applied to each stage of the health care debate, the minority forced the Democrats to round up 60 votes to proceed to the military spending required for Iraq, Afghanistan and the full range of department commitments.

One Democratic senator, Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, had made clear weeks earlier he would not support money for the expanded war in Afghanistan. That meant Reid had to find at least one Republican to supply the 60th vote to get the DOD bill to the floor. He thought he had found one, Thad Cochran of Mississippi, the senior Republican on Appropriations and on its Subcommittee for Defense.

But then Cochran told Reid he had not decided and would decide when the vote began. The Republicans knew that by holding up the DOD bill they could upset Reid's timetable and push the health care bill into 2010 and a more uncertain future.

Reid had to scramble. He had to find another Republican. No dice. Although several would eventually join in the vote for cloture — and all would vote for the bill itself — none would commit in advance.

So Reid had to go back to Feingold. In a dramatic, closed-door session late Thursday, Feingold relented in an emotional speech to his colleagues about how much the health care bill mattered — and how important it was not to give way to the Republican filibuster tactics.

How much does this have to do with the health care and insurance systems? Some, to be sure. Trillions of dollars are at stake in the economy, not to mention millions in campaign contributions (past, present and future). Not too long ago, a health care bill might have emerged with ideas from both parties, especially in the Senate, where several Republicans were interested in being part of the conversation.

But then came the town halls of August and the polls showing Americans believing some of the worst things they had heard about the bill. Republicans became convinced any bill would be a political loser, especially among their constituents and primary voters. The lines hardened while the bill was still in committee and got harder still as it was revised for floor debate.

That's why at this point, a great deal of this struggle is not about health or insurance but about dominance in the strictly political arena of votes, elections and offices.

When Orrin Hatch, Republican of Utah, said the manner of this health bill's handling represented everything Americans dislike about Congress, he was right. He was leveling the charge at the Democratic leaders, of course, but responsibility for the Senate as we know it is broadly shared. It may be the single most bipartisan element of our government.

You can blame the Founding Fathers if you like, as they made no provision of any kind in the Constitution for cutting off debate in the Senate. It was a battle to introduce cloture with two-thirds majority and another battle to lower the threshold to three-fifths. But the fault here is not in the imperfections of the past; it is in the failure of our current lawmakers to shoulder the constitutional burdens of negotiation and compromise.

Driven more by fears of intraparty unrest, today's senators retreat to their campaign talking points, even when conversing with their colleagues. Reaching out for a shared solution has given way to playing hardball around the clock and through the weekend.

This week, that brackish mood prevails as the spirit of the season.

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