This week’s get-out-of-town day in the Senate was one of the more schizophrenic in recent memory, leaving aides and lobbyists little clue about what sort of mood will reign after the weekend.
On the one hand, the most consequential legislative debate this year got off to an efficiently substantive, occasionally eloquent and solidly bipartisan start. Members of the immigration overhaul “gang of eight” moved to embrace some limited ideas for boosting border security, hoping to attract more Republican votes. Then they united to stop other GOP amendments they all viewed as poison pills.
With C-SPAN broadcasting much of the proceedings in the cavernous Hart Central Hearing Room, the first session in what could be a two-week Senate Judiciary Committee markup was widely hailed as reflecting the legislative process at its civics-textbook best.
Not so on the fourth floor of the Dirksen Building, where another TV feed provided live — albeit static — pictures of eight empty chairs reserved for the Republicans on the Environment and Public Works Committee. The senators banded together to boycott the day’s session, which, under an arguable wrinkle in the rules, stopped the panel from advancing Gina McCarthy’s nomination to run the EPA.
The choreographed petulance was one of three passive parliamentary moves this week by the Republican high command, which seems suddenly willing to test fate by resorting to just the sort of partisan high jinks the electorate says it abhors. The intensified use of the throw-the-rule-book-at-'em approach came off as all the more curious in light of the immigration debate’s bipartisan sense of purpose and decorum.
The chairs in Dirksen sat empty less than 18 hours after the Republicans on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions panel leveraged another obscure procedural obstacle to stop Thomas E. Perez’s nomination for Labor secretary from getting to the Senate floor.
And, on a separate front, House Speaker John A. Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell announced Thursday they would ignore a provision of the 2010 health care law calling on each leader to nominate someone for a new panel with the power to dictate Medicare spending reductions with minimal fear of congressional reversal.
In a letter to President Barack Obama, the two GOP leaders conceded that such a bureaucratic feint was the best way they knew to protest the new Independent Payment Advisory Board in light of their inability to kill it by repealing the entire law.
Each of the three moves seemed certain to help energize the Republican base, which likes few things going on in Washington less than the implementation of Obamacare, new environmental regulations on business and efforts to tip the federal rules toward labor at the expense of management.
But none of the maneuvers, at least in the short term, have any chance of achieving the GOP’s stated objective: to prevent Obama from filling the top seats in his second-term administration for as long as possible.
Democrats say they’re confident they have a way around walkouts like the one Thursday, they will soon get McCarthy’s nomination before the entire Senate and they will rebuff any filibuster there. The maneuver that stalled Perez in committee is good for only one week, so his nomination, too, is destined for the floor, though its fate there is looking wobbly at the moment.
And while the 15-member IPAB could operate with two seats vacant, there's a growing bipartisan sentiment that the whole panel is an idea that might best be delayed to oblivion.
The question, then, is why the party leaders decided to focus so much attention this week on parliamentary machinations rather than overt ideological argument. Why go through these motions at a time when voters say they want their lawmakers to focus much more on the merits and less on the maneuvers?
One reason, it seems, is that the tactic drives the White House crazy. Now that the fancy dinners and other items on the charm offensive to-do list have been checked off, thumping the bully pulpit is about all the president can do to promote quick confirmations for his team.
“We call on Republicans to stop the theater and to move forward with the process,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said when asked what the administration would do to combat the slow-walking of Perez and McCarthy. He offered nothing more concrete, not even "strong letter to follow."
If enough constituents are paying attention and start jawboning their senators about it this weekend, there’s still a chance the executive calendar for the rest of May can become as functional as the Senate Judiciary.