With most senators sitting around like wallflowers while key legislation languished in procedural limbo, two who claim to have a bond of trust stepped onto the floor for a bipartisan dance.
"We're trying to show members of the Senate — when the Senate functioned — that you can do that," said Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, cosponsor of a bill with Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland that would provide $13.1 billion to help low-income families pay for child care.
The measure providing block grants for states and the District of Columbia is the only bright spot on an otherwise stalled agenda in the Senate. Benefits for long-term unemployed Americans continue to be blocked by Republicans who insist on finding a pay-for, and on Thursday legislation to provide $21 billion for veterans' programs failed to get the 60 votes needed to overcome a budget point of order.
But Burr is hopeful about the child-care legislation because of his close relationship with Mikulski.
"Barbara Mikulski and I just happen to be two individuals that trust each other innately," Burr said. "So when she says 'I'll stand there' and I say I'll stand there, both of us are willing to do it. So this will be a great test, and if we make it through we'll go on to the next one."
The bill is expected to come to the floor next week as a contentious midterm campaign swirls in the background. Republicans are increasingly confident of their chances of taking over the Senate, and Democrats are sounding the alarm over the millions of dollars conservative outside groups are dumping into toss-up races.
Majority Leader Harry Reid raised the question of how much the Senate would be able to get done this year in the current political climate. Leading up to the vote that halted veterans' legislation in its tracks, Reid attempted a post-mortem analysis even before the vote occurred.
"What are we doing here today? Nothing, nothing," Reid said, as the Senate burned time between votes on Wednesday. "Under the rules, [Republicans] have 30 hours post-cloture and they can sit around and do nothing. That is what they do all the time. We have spent months and months sitting around doing nothing because of procedural roadblocks put up by the Republicans."
Republicans who say they're optimistic about accomplishing more legislatively this year attribute that to their bullish chances in November. "I've kind of been harboring this idea that we may surprise a few people with some of the Democrats who would kind of leave the fold and be more conservative in some of these areas," said Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma. "I'm holding out some hope."
The legislation that failed Thursday would have permitted veterans to qualify for in-state college tuition across state lines should they change their residence. It would also have broken up the backlog of disability claims at the Department of Veterans Affairs, among other provisions.
Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont proposed paying for the measure with savings from military action overseas. Sanders also intended to restore pensions for future retirees after Congress reinstated some of those benefits for current retirees earlier this year.
Republicans objected to the bill for a number of reasons. In an ongoing effort to depict Reid as a bully, GOP senators lamented that he would not allow them an amendment on sanctioning Iran over its nuclear program. They also rejected Sanders's pay-for, which they criticized as fictitious savings because the White House has wound down wars overseas, meaning that the cuts might exist on paper but won't actualize in coming years.
Throughout the debate, Sanders petitioned Republicans to withdraw the poison-pill Iran amendment, saying Reid would permit measures relevant to veterans' affairs. Reid himself said he assured a Republican colleague that his conference could have germane amendments. But Republicans, increasingly rankled by what they say is Reid's strong-arm behavior over amendments, argue that so little legislation comes to the floor that there are limited opportunities to push for the sanctions.
Republicans also disliked the fact that the Veterans' Affairs Committee did not report the majority's bill, which is true, but Sanders, who chairs the panel, pointed out that the committee had considered many of the measures in the legislation.
Burr, the Veterans' Affairs ranking member, proposed his own bill to counter Sanders's. The bills overlap in some areas — on college tuition and the disability-backlog measures, for example. But Burr, citing the Concerned Veterans for America, criticized Sanders's bill as broadening the VA's mandate beyond its capabilities.
Election-year sparring also doomed the bill. Republicans believe Reid limits amendments to shield politically vulnerable Democratic incumbents from difficult votes. They also suggest Democrats are behaving cynically by pushing a bill they know Republicans oppose with the intention of portraying the GOP as insensitive to veterans' needs.
Democrats shoot back that Republican procedural tactics blocking legislation are par for the course this Congress. They also accuse Republicans of pushing Iran sanctions for political purposes. It's an issue that divides Democrats, as some have signaled they want stiffer sanctions despite the White House's desire to follow a diplomatic path. Reid, though, said that the idea of Iran getting nuclear weapons is so "unthinkable" that the issue has always united the parties.