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North Korea Brings Polarized Congress Together

Corker couldn't say enough nice things about the legislation and his colleagues. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

What do you have to do to bring a politically polarized Congress together? Conduct a nuclear weapons test, launch a long-range rocket and restart a reactor that can provide weapons-grade plutonium.  

That's the kind of series of events that will get everyone from Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., hardly ideological soul mates, all operating on the same page, and voting on Wednesday, 96-0, to enhance sanctions against North Korea because of its nuclear activity. Senators could hardly wait for the 5 p.m.  scheduled vote.  

"Are we voting?" Sen. David Vitter, R-La., asked one of the measure's sponsors, Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn. Not yet. First Corker needed to move to a vote, and then he needed a second.  

He got that second, from several eager senators who all raised their hands — Foreign Relations ranking member Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md.; Dan Coats, R-Ind.; Tim Kaine, D-Va.; and another sponsor, Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J.  

The "ayes" started rolling in. Conversation on the floor was easy. Senate Banking ranking member Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, asked colleagues if they were going to come to the Capitol Visitor Center to see a special screening of "The Big Short" where he is set to speak.  

About the only drama associated with the outcome was whether oft-absent GOP presidential candidate and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who was in town one night after the New Hampshire primary, would vote.  

Rubio stated his intention to vote on the measure and was in the Capitol, but as the vote dragged on for more than 40 minutes, he was not on the floor. Senators started getting restless.  

Finally, at about 5:50 p.m., he appeared to exclamations of "Marco" from his colleagues, and gave the clerk the thumbs up to signal his "aye" vote. He lingered after the vote then, surrounded by a gaggle of GOP colleagues -- Coats, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Cory Gardner of Colorado and Jim Risch of Idaho, among others.  

It was the kind of vote all senators seemed to relish.  

Shortly after the chamber convened Wednesday morning, Reid used his opening remarks to plug the legislation.  

"Here in the Capitol, there is also broad bipartisan agreement that there must be consequences for North Korea's provocations. The House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed new sanctions legislation. Now the Senate must act. We need to do it today," Reid said.  

McConnell also urged "my colleagues to vote yes," although the advice seemed hardly needed, because senators booked the full amount of debate time to vouch for the measure and praise its bipartisan pedigree.  

The House version of the legislation zipped through that chamber on Jan. 12 on a 418-2 vote. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee then unanimously passed its own version. But without the cooperation of the minority, even with bipartisan support, legislation can linger on its way to the floor.  

That wasn't the case with this bill.  

"I thank again Senator McConnell and Senator Reid for allowing this to come up in this manner," Corker said on the floor, heaping on praise for House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., and ranking member Eliot L. Engel, D-N.Y., for their part in moving the legislation.  

The way congressional business is conducted is so far removed from the old Schoolhouse Rock "I'm Just a Bill" idealized world that Corker paused for a moment and let people know everything was on the up and up.  

"This is a collaborative effort. I hate to even use words like that. I know people hear it back home. But it is. It is a collaborative effort by two bodies of Congress and two committees and ultimately by the end of the day, I think two bodies fully passing this. It's going to become law. And this is going to begin to make a difference in the way North Korea is behaving," Corker said.  

Menendez, the former chairman of Foreign Relations who stepped down from his position as the panel's top Democrat as he fights a federal indictment on corruption charges, also couldn't offer enough praise.  

"I thank you for your leadership on the committee for creating an environment that is bipartisan and at a time in which bipartisanship in the Senate is a continuing challenge," Menendez said. He then added that Gardner "has very graciously worked together with me to bring a moment of a united, and I hope will be an overwhelmingly, maybe unanimous vote in the Senate." He got his wish with the 96-0 vote.  

It even managed to bring back two of the three remaining senators who are left in the presidential race.  Rubio, who leads the chamber in absenteeism in the 114th Congress, and Texas Republican Ted Cruz.  

Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., competing for the Democratic nod, did not return to the Capitol. Sanders, who narrowly lost to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Iowa and trounced her in the Granite State Tuesday, spent Wednesday in New York, book-ending the day with appearances on television's "The View" and "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert."  

He said he would have voted "aye," but just couldn't make it. "While I will be necessarily absent for the expected bipartisan passage of the bill, I strongly support the North Korea sanctions legislation,” he said in a statement.  

So on Wednesday, politics stopped at the waters' edge, be it the Pacific or Atlantic (or Manhattan) coasts.  

-- Bridget Bowman and Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report. Contact Dick at jasondick@rollcall.com and follow him on Twitter at @jasonjdick.

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