The Senate adjourned this week amid self-administered backslaps for “working hard during August” (they worked a grand total of 6.5 days) and donning self-congratulatory laurels as they praised themselves for implementing “major Republican priorities.”
But for anyone paying attention, the Senate’s latest “work” session had all the characteristics of the 115th Congress: wildly exaggerated rhetoric, few actual results, a lot of excuses, and a stunning lack of urgency to accomplish anything they promised voters.
Nowhere has this been more clear than in the Senate’s approach to passing spending bills. While senators are crediting themselves for passing six of the required 12 appropriations bills, they did this with significantly reduced effort. The six bills were considered three at a time and with barely any amendments or debate. More important, those six bills represent only half of what the Senate needs to pass in order fully to fund the government.
Toward that end, Congress has made no progress. Not a single spending bill has been sent to the president for his signature, because the House and Senate, meeting in conference, cannot agree on how to resolve their differences. In other words, they cannot agree if any of the House’s more conservative policies will survive the Senate’s complete purge of anything representing Republican fiscal policy.
This tension between House and Senate—as well as the tension between Senate leadership and conservatives—was brought to the fore last week over an amendment offered by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who sought to amend funding for the departments of Labor and Health and Human Services (Labor-HHS).
Historically, Labor-HHS is the home of pro-life related policies when Republicans are in the majority. The House-drafted Labor-HHS bill, for example, defunds Planned Parenthood and bars research on fetal tissue from induced abortions, among other policies. The Senate’s bill, however, contains no attempt to advance these policies, which Senate Republican leaders identified as “poison pills.” (Raise your hand if you’re a voter who sent Republicans to Congress so they could dismiss “defunding Planned Parenthood” as a “poison pill.”)
When Paul attempted to offer an amendment to defund Planned Parenthood, a behind-the-scenes war was waged against him by his own leadership. The internecine warfare spilled out into the open with an epic speech from Paul, who called out his own leadership on the Senate floor, accusing them of prioritizing to “spending money” over “saving lives.” Paul went on,
What I would say to my Republican colleagues is please, please explain to voters at home why you allow Planned Parenthood to continue receiving taxpayer funds. Explain to those at home why you blocked, why you purposely filled the amendment tree to block an amendment to defund Planned Parenthood.
Please explain to voters at home why passing huge deficit spending bills is more important than trying to save lives. And please explain to America why anyone would trust politicians who continue to break their promises.
Sunlight, it turns out, really is the best disinfectant. In the face of Paul’s rhetorical assault, Senate leaders relented. But not before jamming him up one more time, taking Paul’s amendment and setting it at a 60-vote threshold, ensuring it would fail.
The duplicity of Senate Republicans is now a recurring theme. They claim to stand for something on the campaign trail, but then fail to support it when they get to Washington—instead hiding behind procedural excuses and “strategies” that are never intended to amount to anything.
In the case of Paul’s amendment, the Senate’s leadership claimed a vote would be counterproductive to their strategy of addressing the issue with the House in conference. Never mind that the House hasn’t even passed their Labor-HHS bill, or the fact that zero spending bills have been conferenced successfully and sent to the president.
Moreover, the outcome of the spending process, as outlined above, will not be 12 individual bills enshrined in law. It will be yet another thousand-page, trillion-dollar December omnibus. But that painfully obvious fact didn’t stop the Senate’s leadership from trying to convince conservatives that the leadership’s palpably insincere strategy was actually meaningful.
This reflects the approach of Senate leadership to nearly everything that conservatives and Trump supporters care about. Obamacare? “Well, we tried,” is the response. Meanwhile, senior Senate Republicans keep trying to bail out the failing law.
Border security? McConnell’s “open” amendment process was actually a highly orchestrated episode of failure theater—with hand-selected border security measures put up for votes that were guaranteed to fail.
Even now, as furor over the border rages in the wake of another murder of an American citizen by an illegal alien, and as the immigration issue continues to garner historic levels of attention, Senate Republicans plan to punt on the issue until after the election, when accountability will be at its lowest.
Time and again, Senate leadership has given lip service to our priorities while trying their hardest not to work with the president to accomplish real change.
And no, Senate leaders are not engaged in some masterful sort of grand strategy on behalf of voters’ priorities. This is not tactical brilliance or a game of four-dimensional chess incomprehensible to mere mortals. There is not some year-end master stroke that is going to emerge from the leader’s office in December to solves all the Senate’s policy problems. This is exactly what it appears: political cowardice.
Any reasons offered by Senate leaders for not addressing issues the voters care about amount to nothing more than excuses, plain and simple.
Voters are weary of being patted on the head and told to respect the judgement of the Washington elite that continues to fail them. Sen. Paul’s boldness on the Senate floor last week illustrated just a fraction of what an individual senator can do if he stops shrinking in fear from the rhetorical reprisals of his colleagues, or the backroom machinations of his leadership, and actually stands up for what he believes in.
Senate Republicans may have very little time left with unified control of this Congress. The Senate’s leadership has demonstrated they intend to end this year as T.S. Eliot wrote—not with a bang but a whimper. And a big bag of excuses. Shame on conservatives if they continue to be rolled by politicians like this.
Photo Credit: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Cal