Senate thaw, brief as it was, shows promise

They were rolling the credits on the Senate floor Tuesday morning.

Harry Reid thanked Patrick Leahy and Patty Murray, who praised Amy Klobuchar, who gave a nod to Mitch McConnell, who credited John Cornyn, who touted Chuck Grassley, Mark Warner, Heidi Heitkamp and Susan Collins.

The cause of all this gratitude: Democrats and Republicans had agreed on a compromise to pass a human-trafficking bill, which had clogged the chamber for a month and held up confirmation of Loretta Lynch as attorney general.

“I’ve actually been somewhat surprised and more optimistic than I have been in a long time about how the Senate is beginning to work again,” said Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican and not usually such a sunny guy. “After a long period of dysfunction in the United States Senate, we are starting to see the United States Senate work again the way it should work. … I have hope for even more positive things to occur.”

It might be worth interrupting this victory lap to point out that the lawmakers were taking credit for the legislative equivalent of tying their shoes. The trafficking bill, which combats sex slavery, cleared committee unanimously but had been hung up over an extraneous provision about abortion funding; the dispute compounded a months-long delay for Lynch, who has enough votes to clear the Senate.

Even if Lynch is confirmed and the trafficking bill passes, the Senate will have confirmed just 22 nominees so far this year, according to Democratic leadership, fewer than the Senate had done by the same point in each of the previous four Congresses. It also will have approved just 16 bills (fewer than at this point in all but one of the previous four Congresses), and five of those had been blocked by the Republican minority in the last Congress.

But in this environment, baby steps count. Congress passed a bipartisan bill fixing Medicare payments to doctors that had caused headaches for years. The Senate has had some bipartisan agreement on a trade bill, on education policy, on cybersecurity and on legislation regarding nuclear negotiations with Iran. And now there’s the trafficking bill and the Lynch confirmation.

Few expected this, but it shouldn’t come as a total surprise. I wrote in July about how officials in the White House wondered whether a unified Republican Congress would be better for President Obama. Republicans would either embarrass themselves by overreaching (as they did with a threatened shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security) or would become more responsible and attempt compromise (which is now occurring).

There is precedent for this. After Democrats took control of Congress in 2007, they passed a flurry of bills, and President George W. Bush had signed 19 into law by this point in the year, compared with nine by Obama so far this year. Then, as now, the Senate had a freewheeling legislative process: it considered 202 amendments in the first three months of this year and 205 in the first three months of 2007, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center, which sees Congress making “first steps” toward restoring effectiveness.

This modest achievement, following a dismal 2014, had lawmakers coming to the floor with what sounded like acceptance speeches at the Academy Awards.

“I want to express my gratitude to Sen. Klobuchar, Sen. Murray, Sen. Reid on the other side of the aisle …. and of course the chairman of the judiciary committee, Sen. Grassley, and particularly I want to single out the majority leader, Sen. McConnell,” said Cornyn.

Even the irascible Reid was magnanimous, to a point. “When Democrats and Republicans sit down together and work toward a solution, good things can happen. The Senate needs more of this,” he said.

But it wasn’t long before the lawmakers were bickering again — this time about who should get the glory. McConnell said Democrats get “some credit,” if only because “we’ve given them an opportunity.” But his colleagues claimed credit for Republicans.

“When Republicans took control here, getting Washington working again wasn’t just a campaign slogan. … We are following through on it,” Sen. John Thune of South Dakota said after lunch with his GOP colleagues.

But Reid was having none of it. “Everything we’ve been able to get done has been things that we tried to get done when we were in the majority and they stopped it through their filibusters,” he said after lunch with Democratic colleagues. “We are not opposing things just to be opposing them as they did.”

The bipartisan bonhomie had lasted all of four hours.

Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist.

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