When Democrats took control of Congress in January, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) pledged to jointly push an ambitious agenda to counter 12 years of Republican control.
Now, as Congress struggles to adjourn for Christmas, relations between House Democrats and their colleagues in the Senate have devolved into finger-pointing.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) accuses Senate Democratic leaders of developing "Stockholm syndrome," showing sympathy to their Republican captors by caving in on legislation to provide middle-class tax cuts paid for with tax increases on the super-rich, tying war funding to troop withdrawal timelines, and mandating renewable energy quotas. If Republicans want to filibuster a bill, Rangel said, Reid should keep the bill on the Senate floor and force the Republicans to talk it to death.
Reid, in turn, has taken to the Senate floor to criticize what he called the speaker's "iron hand" style of governance.
Democrats in each chamber are now blaming their colleagues in the other for the mess in which they find themselves. The predicament caused the majority party yesterday surrender to President Bush on domestic spending levels, drop a cherished renewable-energy mandate and move toward leaving a raft of high-profile legislation, from addressing the mortgage crisis to providing middle-class tax relief, undone or incomplete.
"If there's going to be a filibuster, let's hear the damn filibuster," Rangel fumed. "Let's fight this damned thing out."
In the past few weeks, the House has thrown wave after wave of legislation at the Senate -- on energy, Iraq war policy, the housing and mortgage crisis, and middle-income tax cuts offset largely by tax increases on the wealthy.
Most of it has died quietly, a predetermined fate that both sides could foresee before the first vote was cast. Yet they went ahead anyway. Just last night, the House, for a second time, passed legislation to stave off the growth of the alternative minimum tax, to be paid for by a measure to stop hedge fund managers from deferring compensation in offshore tax havens. Like the previous House version, it has virtually no chance of passing in the Senate.
Officially, House Democrats blame Senate Republicans, who have used parliamentary tactics to block even uncontroversial measures. But they are increasingly expressing public frustration with Reid and Senate Democrats for not putting up a better fight.
House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) called it a "hold and fold" strategy: Senate Republicans put a "hold" on Democratic bills, and Senate Democratic leaders promptly fold their tents.
Asked about his decision on government funding, House Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey (D-Wis.) groused to the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call: "I'll tell you how soon I will make a decision when I know how soon the Senate sells us out." Senate Democrats have fired back, accusing Pelosi and her liberal allies of sending over legislation that they know cannot pass in the Senate, and of making demands that will not gain any GOP votes. Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) noted that, this summer, Reid employed just the kind of theatrics Rangel and other House Democrats are demanding, holding the Senate open all night, pulling out cots and forcing a dusk-till-dawn debate on an Iraq war withdrawal measure before a vote on war funding. Democrats gained not a single vote after the all-night antics.
"I understand the frustration; we're frustrated, too," Bayh said. "But holding a bunch of Kabuki theater doesn't get anything done."
As they wrap up their first year in control of the entire Capitol since 1994, Democrats are trying to prove that they can be an equal partner to Bush. But their first 11 months have been politically and legislatively brutal, with congressional approval ratings dropping this week to 32 percent, a notch below Bush's 33 percent, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll. Their support plummeted as the liberal base grew outraged over the Democratic inability to counter the president on any war issue, while moderates and centrists looking for bipartisan kitchen-table accomplishments instead saw partisan gridlock. The disputes have at times taken on starkly personal tones. In closed-door bicameral leadership meetings, Pelosi has questioned Reid's intentions on issues such as war funding tied to troop withdrawal timelines and an alternative minimum tax fix that is fully funded by tax increase offsets, suggesting that his words have not always matched his actions.
Reid has let his own frustration show. After Republican senators accused Pelosi of lying about her intentions on a comprehensive energy bill, the majority leader offered a backhanded defense.
"I can't control Speaker Pelosi," he said on the chamber floor. "I hope everybody understands that. She is a strong, independent woman. She runs the House with an iron hand. I support what she does, but no one needs to come and tell me I didn't keep my word."
Reid, the son of a hard-rock miner from a tiny, rural Nevada town, and Pelosi, the daughter of a mayor of Baltimore who married a multimillionaire and moved to San Francisco, have little in common on a personal level. They have what several lawmakers and aides describe as a formal, all-business relationship, one that involves little personal chit-chat when they sit down for their weekly meetings on Tuesday evenings.
Some days Reid and Pelosi get down to business and quickly settle cross-chamber disputes, but other times it requires a different touch to deliver certain messages. After Tuesday's Senate Democratic leadership meeting, Reid dispatched deputies to inform Pelosi that the Senate would not stand for the latest offer to eliminate earmarks, as well as all war funds, from a year-end omnibus spending package.
One of those instructed to talk to Pelosi was Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), a fellow Bay Area liberal who is a close friend of the speaker's and engages her in a personal way that Reid never does.
While many House Democrats see Reid's decision-making process as mercurial, one Senate Democrat suggested that some lawmakers might confuse Reid's tone and brevity with lack of respect.
"When Harry's done talking, the conversation's over. Boom," the Democratic senator said, mimicking someone hanging up the phone.
A top aide said that Reid and the speaker have a "natural frustration" because of the limitations they face within their chambers, but that both blame Senate Republicans, who have routinely forced Reid to round up 60 votes -- to prevent a filibuster -- on everything from a contentious immigration bill to popular ethics legislation. Even on the best of days, Democrats hold just a 51 to 49 majority in the Senate.
"We understand the speaker can pass bills only with Democratic votes. And we know she understands the Constitution and the closely divided Senate requires Senator Reid to pick up 20 percent of Senate Republicans just to get a vote on something, let alone pass it," said Jim Manley, Reid's spokesman.
The 60-vote threshold has become the flashpoint for the intramural Democratic dispute.
Senate Democrats contend that their House counterparts simply do not understand the modern Senate when they badger Reid about holding all-night filibusters. In a series of 20th-century changes, Senate filibusters became a thing of the past. Rules pushed by senators seeking to pass civil rights legislation allow filibusters to be thwarted if 60 or more members vote to cut off the debate. As long as the minority party has 41 votes, it no longer has to hold the floor and talk a bill to death.
Republicans, who spent 12 years in similar battles, are just enjoying the spectacle.
"Just let 'em stew for a while," said soon-to-retire Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.), a veteran of the GOP's own squabbles.
© 2007 The Washington Post