Has The Senate Found It's More Fun To Be Functional?

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Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., (left) and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., at a ceremony last month at the U.S. Capitol. (Getty Images)
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., (left) and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., at a ceremony last month at the U.S. Capitol. (Getty Images)

Loretta Lynch's confirmation as Attorney General was not the only sign of a spring thaw in the Senate this week: Senators also voted for a crackdown on human trafficking, while green shoots of compromise seemed to sprout on other contentious issues, both foreign and domestic.

To be sure, both the Lynch and human trafficking votes should have happened months ago, before a partisan standoff developed about a side-issue squabble on abortion funding. But this is what we've come to expect from the Senate — long wrangles over old issues, driven by intensely partisan constituencies.

So the deal on abortion language that finally freed these latest legislative hostages felt like a harbinger of warmer weather to come.

Next week, the Senate will approve a bill setting up a review process by which Congress will consider any nuclear deal President Obama reaches with Iran. That got through the Foreign Relations Committee 19-0 — a big win for chairman Bob Corker, a Republican who negotiated with Democrats.

The Senate also accepted the House's "doc fix" — a compromise solution to a chronic problem on doctor reimbursements (a perennial threat to patient care). And on trade, it looks like presidential fast-track authority for trade deals will get through the Senate this spring.

After the Lynch vote, Mitch McConnell's lieutenants in GOP leadership took to the floor to praise him and the new majority party for its makeover of the Senate. John Barrasso of Wyoming noted that the Senate had worked more days so far this year than at this point in 2013 or 2011, and that more bills had been reported out of committee. He had the numbers on a big chart beside him.

John Cornyn of Texas said he and his GOP colleagues had heard and heeded voter complaints about dysfunction in the Senate. That seemed to be the consensus on the Senate floor yesterday — at least among Republicans.

Democrats, no surprise, portray themselves as the more cooperative partner, pointing out the record numbers of filibusters and other procedural maneuvers the Republicans used when they were in the minority.

All sides can agree the Senate still works best in committee, where key members typically cooperate on the details of bills and amendments, putting in the long hours needed to do a deal.

But when you get to the floor, of course, things change. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is still leader for the Republicans and Harry Reid of Nevada for the Democrats in the minority. Two more thoroughly partisan figures would be difficult to imagine.

McConnell surely has a lot of competing factions and ambitions among his 54 Republicans, and his formidable skills as a debater and tactician are perhaps less valuable in making the machine run than they were in making it stop.

Still, some of the tension of recent years may be subsiding. The Democrats presided but did not truly rule in recent sessions of the Senate; they were at best an embattled majority. Reid often was caught between the White House and the many endangered incumbents among his colleagues.

Now some of that has eased, and Reid himself — while still the leader — may be less an irritant in the mix.

Reid still wears protective eye covering for injuries he says he suffered in an exercise accident this past winter, and he's announced he will retire next year. While still cantankerous and combative, he now finds himself in a reactive role for the first time since 2006, and it is evident his era is waning.

If this Senate is getting some traction, it is not yet a threat to join any Legislative Hall of Fame: Much higher hurdles loom just ahead, including highway funding, spending bills and the debt ceiling.

Something like a third of all the roads in America need work. The Congress has never grasped the nettle of raising enough revenue to fund what it spends, and it loathes raising the debt ceiling it keeps imposing on itself.

And that's not to even mention bigger game, such as tax reform or entitlement reform or immigration reform — no sign of any of that happening in the Senate anytime soon, and likely not until the 115th Congress convenes in 2017.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The most remarkable thing about Loretta Lynch's confirmation is that it happened. In other words, the Senate completed a piece of normal business - two pieces, actually, since it also passed that human trafficking bill. Congress has functioned so badly for years that this counts as news. We've brought in NPR senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving to pose a question about this. Hi, Ron.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Steve.

INSKEEP: And the question is, is the Senate actually working?

ELVING: Yes, on one level. But you could also say that both of these votes should have taken place months ago. So they just got their January business done. They got delayed, as you know, by a partisan standoff over a side issue, a squabble over abortion funding. But that's what we've come to expect from the Senate for several years now. And the deal that got these votes freed up so they could actually happen this week, that could be seen as a kind of green shoot of hope. It's like a new spirit ripening with the warmer weather.

INSKEEP: OK. Well, I'm remembering that Mitch McConnell, the new Republican leader of the Senate, had indicated that he wanted the institution to work. He was described as a fierce partisan, sure, but a man of the institution and a practical man who wanted to get things done. Are there other signs that things are getting done?

ELVING: Yes, I think you can say that. Next week, the Senate's going to approve an Iran review - that is, an Iran nuclear deal review...

INSKEEP: Yeah.

ELVING: A bill that they worked out in committee - Bob Corker, the Republican chairman there, working with Democrats. They got a 19-to-nothing approval vote in that committee, and it's going to go through in the Senate as well. The Republican resistance, in parts of the Senate, to the doc fix - that's a Medicare issue that's a chronic problem that's been coming around for years and years - they got it fixed in the House through a compromise. And the Senate miraculously managed to approve that. And also, we've seen on trade that the Senate appears to be ready to give the president fast-track negotiating authority on trade deals. And we'll see that probably happen later this spring.

INSKEEP: What's making the difference in a Republican Senate?

ELVING: Well, of course, if you talk to the Republicans - and they were out on the floor talking about this yesterday - there was a consensus among the Republicans that's what makes the difference is putting them in charge, making them the majority party. Democrats, not surprisingly, portray themselves as the willing partner, the people who are willing to do business with the Republicans now that the Democrats are in the minority. And they were pointing out the record numbers of filibusters and other procedural maneuvers that the Republicans had used when they were in the minority.

INSKEEP: I'm trying to avoid just saying, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, Ron Elving. But has anything really changed, you know, substantively, as you've watched this as a longtime observer?

ELVING: There's been a new focus on committees, where you can do the kind of bipartisan work that makes the Senate work when it does, where a simple majority can prevail, where you can negotiate, where you've got less TV coverage, perhaps, and maybe less static from all those competing presidential campaigns.

INSKEEP: Although, you do have those competing presidential campaigns. And, in fact, quite a few of the candidates or possible candidates are members of the United States Senate.

ELVING: Yes, at least three, probably going to be a fourth. And, you know, when you get to the floor, you're still going to have the usual dynamics that we've always had there. It's still the Senate floor. It's still kind of like Death Valley. And Mitch McConnell has 54 egos he has to deal with on the Republican side. And sometimes, it can get tough to get a majority over there. And you do need 60 to shut off a filibuster. And you need two-thirds to override a presidential veto, should we get to some more of those. So the tension, though, on the other hand, seems to have subsided just a little bit. The Democrats were really an embattled majority in recent years and Harry Reid, their leader, was caught between the White House and all those endangered incumbents he had among his colleagues. And some of that may have eased. And Reid himself, while he's still very much the leader, has announced that he's retiring next year. And he may be a little bit less of an irritant in some ways as his era is waning.

INSKEEP: Very briefly, what is an opportunity or two that the Senators have coming up to extend their winning streak?

ELVING: The higher hurdles are coming ahead. Next month, they're going to look at a deadline for the Highway Trust Fund...

INSKEEP: Right.

ELVING: Something like a third of the roads in the country are falling apart. There's also a fiscal process coming up in the fall. And we'll whether or not we can keep the government functioning and raise the debt ceiling. No sign of anything happening on those issues.

INSKEEP: Ron, thanks very much.

ELVING: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.