WASHINGTON – The U.S. Senate functioned properly last week. Senators called up a bill, then debated it and amended it and passed it. There was no grandstanding, no filibuster, no reading of “Green Eggs and Ham” or any other Dr. Seuss book.
And it all happened because two very different senators from two very different states – Democrat Charles E. Schumer of New York and Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee – are pushing the Senate to be a place of more bipartisan comity and less unintended comedy.
Bonding over their morning workouts in the Senate gym, the hyperactive liberal from Brooklyn and the soft-spoken conservative from the Volunteer State became friends. And watching the Senate descend into dysfunction in recent years, they met over steak and wine a couple of months back and decided to do something about it.
Their idea? Let the Senate try to work the way it did for 200 years. Let a committee hammer out a bipartisan bill and give senators the chance to amend it on the floor, while preventing any one senator from derailing the effort.
Last week, that approach worked like a charm, as the Senate passed a reauthorization of a child development block grant bill that had been mired in gridlock for years.
“This is a small but significant step in repairing the breach in the Senate,” Schumer said in an interview after the vote. “And Lamar and I, we talked afterwards, and we’re very positive and very enthusiastic about what happened.”
“I think it’s a modest step toward the kind of Senate I would like to serve in and I think most Americans would like to see,” the Tennessee senator said in an interview later the same day. “We are here to debate and deal with contentious issues. But we’re also here to get a result.”
The big test of the experiment, Schumer said, will be whether the new approach can be used to pass the 13 must-pass spending bills that it will take up later this year - which are measures that have been mired in partisan paralysis in the recent past.
Results have been few and far between in the Senate in recent years, as the filibuster and other delaying tactics slowed work to a crawl. Most notoriously of all, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, last fall tried to talk Obamacare to death over 21 hours. He failed, but not before reading Dr. Seuss’s “Green Eggs and Ham” to his colleagues and a bewildered C-SPAN audience.
To hear Schumer tell it, the rise of tea partiers like Cruz was the culmination of a 20-year partisan breach.
“Lamar will disagree with this, but with the advent of the tea party – which had a view of my way or no way and we dislike almost everything government does, let’s block it – it reached its peak,” Schumer said of the partisan divide. “And I think it’s now declining because the leadership of the Republican Party in the House and Senate – and Lamar’s part of this – realized that if they just followed the tea party on everything, they’re going to follow them over a cliff.”
For his part, Alexander blames Democrats for making the partisan split far worse last November, when they rewrote Senate rules to allow presidential nominations to advance with a mere 51 votes instead of the traditional 60.
“I’m still furious about it,” Alexander said. “It was the most damaging thing that has been done to the United States Senate since the rules were written. But it only affected nominations – presidential nominations.”
How, then, did the Senate go from that divisive moment to this one, where Democrats and Republicans worked together to pass a bill?
It all started when Alexander took Schumer to dinner at the Prime Rib, a legendary Washington steak house. There, they hammered out a back-to-the-future pilot project where the Senate would try to legislate as it did back in the old days.
They honed in on the child care block grant bill, which was moving through a Senate committee with bipartisan support. And each went to his respective party leaders and said, in essence: Can we just bring the bill to the floor and let the committee chair and ranking member manage the debate, working together, Democrat and Republican, to pass helpful changes while fending off any poison-pill amendments?
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., agreed. And so, for two days last week, the Senate debated, amended and then passed a bill that modernizes a federal child-care development block grant program in a way that makes it easier for people to work overtime without worrying about losing their federal child-care grant.
The experience left senators from both parties thrilled with the result.
“This is how the Senate should operate,” Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., the bill’s chief Democratic sponsor, said during debate over the measure. “We should have mutual respect, talking with each other and not at each other, listening to the experts, listening to the grassroots, and paying attention to the bottom line. We were able to accomplish what we set out to do.”
The bill’s chief Republican sponsor, Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, stressed that the compromise legislation will do a lot of good.
“This is not about headlines,” Burr said on the Senate floor. “This is about looking at a generation of kids who will be benefited by reforms to a reauthorization that hasn’t happened since 1996.”
Schumer and Alexander are thrilled, too. Already they’ve focused on a handful of other bills that could be passed in the same bipartisan way.
“There’s a yearning on both sides of the aisle amongst the majority of members – not all – to legislate again,” Schumer said. “That’s what we’re supposed to do.”
Truth be told, though, some senators don’t really know how. So, in debating a bill and passing 18 amendments to it – some offered by Democrats, some by Republicans – some senators learned a little something.
“I think the usefulness of the whole exercise was that about half the members of the Senate are in their first term,” Alexander said. “They’ve never seen it work properly. So it was much a teaching exercise as it was the passage of a bill. Some senators passed an amendment that will become law for the first time in their Senate careers.”
Perhaps there’s a lesson, too, in the relationship Schumer and Alexander have built.
Praising his “dear friend Lamar,” Schumer said: “Everyone knows he’s conservative, everyone knows he’s got convictions and we’re not going to agree with him on so many things. But he’s well-respected as an honorable broker on the Democratic side.”
Meanwhile, Alexander called Schumer “effective and smart,” and said the two men share an understanding of how the Senate ought to work.
“A Boy Scout shouldn’t get a merit badge for telling the truth. And the Senate shouldn’t get a pat on the back for working together to get a result,” Alexander said. “That’s what we’re supposed to do. We’re supposed to debate and where we can agree, solve problems. And when we can’t agree, we should go on to the next thing. Senator Schumer understands that, and I do, too. And I think a growing number of senators welcome that kind of attitude.”