Though tensions between Democrats and Republicans have been festering since the beginning of the 110th Congress, this week’s Senate debate on the Iraq War has pushed the chamber to a new level of partisan acrimony, where even the most seasoned and collegial of Senate elders have abandoned traditional acts of decorum.
“The Senate is spiraling into the ground to a degree that I have never seen before, and I’ve been here a long time,” Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said. “All modicum of courtesy has gone out the window.”
That statement came after a highly charged, all-night debate on a Democratic amendment to refocus the U.S. mission in Iraq and complete a troop drawdown by April 30, 2008. The amendment failed, 52-47, to get the 60 votes necessary to overcome a filibuster, and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) cited the Republicans’ “obstructionist” tactics in his decision to scrap the entire debate on the Defense Department authorization bill.
Reid’s insistence not only on having repeated votes this year on pulling out of Iraq but also on having the overnight session contributed to the explosion of partisan tensions, some Senators said.
“I do think 36 hours with no sleep and the orchestration of a repeat debate of what we just got through two months ago weighed heavily on everybody,” Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) said. “It was what it was, but there’s a lot of frustration. It’s a good time for a four-week break.”
Senate Republicans said the clearest evidence that the chamber’s traditional comity has evaporated is in Reid’s repeated decisions to prohibit GOP Senators from giving short speeches when they object to his unanimous consent requests. Reid first began using the tactic against a handful of GOP conservatives during last month’s bitterly fought immigration reform debate.
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the most recent victim of that tactic, gave an indignant speech on the floor Wednesday to protest what he said was Reid’s lack of respect for fellow Senators.
Though Specter acknowledged that Senate rules do not afford lawmakers the right to give speeches following unanimous consent requests, the veteran Pennsylvania moderate said, “It has been common practice in this body to allow a Senator who reserves the right to object to make a statement as to why the objection is being lodged.”
Specter went on to ominously state that Reid’s insistence on the rules could come back to haunt him.
“Those practices I think are not only rude, but dictatorial,” he said. “And if those technical rules are applied — and any one of us can do it — this body will cease to function.”
Republican sources said that beyond Specter, both Lott and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) were taken aback this week when they were denied recognition typically afforded the minority. Lott and Specter — Senators who often work with Reid and Democrats on the floor and on legislation — were particularly incensed with what they viewed as Reid’s disregard of Senate decorum and protocol.
Specter said that Lott declined Reid’s offer to publicly apologize.
One senior Republican aide said Reid — by refusing to allow GOP Senators the opportunity to answer him when addressed — sent a clear signal to the minority of, “To heck with you, your views don’t matter.”
Vice President Joe Biden waits to conduct a mock swearing-in ceremony with Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in the Capitol's Old Senate Chamber, December 2, 2014. Schatz was sworn in to serve the remainder of his term since he was appointed to the seat after Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, passed away.