Jessica’s Republican colleagues immediately pile on one another to shoot down the bill. The conservatives would instead like to see a statute of limitations on discrimination lawsuits, along with legislation to combat discrimination against nonunion workers. The latter would be a huge victory for the GOP and a major headache for Democrats, who rely on unions for fundraising, organization, and get-out-the-vote efforts nationwide. But the Republicans’ real sticking point is Jessica’s plan to let the Justice Department police discrimination rather than have individuals file suits on their own. Echoing their real-world counterparts, the Republicans don’t want to hand oversight power to the federal government.
Finally, Henry Eccles — a high school junior playing, if possible, a taller, lankier Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine — stands up, putting an end to the arguing. A centrist himself, Henry makes an impassioned Snowe-like plea for bipartisanship. Committee members applaud as he calls on his Republican colleagues to consider giving in on the gay-rights measure in exchange for their own provisions.
But Jessica quickly cuts in. A few heads fall quietly down onto desks in resignation. Turning to her Democratic colleagues, Jessica argues for a more liberal bill. Henry turns and interrupts her, incensed. “I’m telling you, if you’re sticking to the left,” he says, “you’re not going to get what you want.”
FIGHTING FOR COMPROMISE
About halfway through the morning committee session, the students break off into smaller groups. After a few minutes of trying to persuade Jessica to compromise, most of the Republicans cross to the other side of the room to write up their own legislation. A single Republican moderate stays behind to do what he does best: broker a deal.
That moderate is 18-year-old Ben Tannenbaum of Chicago, who spends a good third of the Senate’s full sessions kneeling, ducking through the aisles, imploring both caucuses to compromise. Portraying one of the Senate’s most centrist Republicans, Scott Brown of Massachusetts, the position suits him. On top of that, people just seem to like Ben. He has the charisma of a politician and a manner when he speaks, looking up at his colleagues from beneath round, tortoise-shell glasses, that makes people listen. When it comes time to vote, much of the Republican caucus — and even some of the Democrats — look to him instinctively for direction.
Try to imagine anyone in the actual Senate today commanding that kind of respect.
Ben spends 20 minutes with Jessica in committee on a Saturday morning, pushing her to concede the Justice Department provision in her bill. As time runs out, Ben asks again for Jessica to budge, promising that he can get Republicans to back her position on gay rights, despite his opposition to same-sex marriage, if she would just give in a little. But like so many senators on the Hill, Jessica won’t move. So the committee moves without her.
By the end of the session, a coalition of conservative and moderate Republicans pushes through their own compromise, dropping the Justice Department provision. The new bill includes a major concession to the Democrats, incorporating gay-rights protections into the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But it also has several Republican gains, including codifying nondiscrimination against nonunion workers, eliminating a segment of President Obama’s health care legislation that imposes a $3,000 fine on companies for each low-income worker hired, and instituting a statute of repose on all discrimination lawsuits to prevent excessive or fraudulent litigation.
A begrudging Ben says the bill gets a lot done for his constituents without compromising his own principles, and signs on just seconds before the committee resumes debate. Although the measure garners even some moderate Democratic support, Jessica vows to oppose it. Ben addresses the full Republican caucus around 5 p.m. on Saturday, calling on them to support the bill, which accomplishes some of what they want, even if the gay-rights provision is “a tough pill to swallow.”
Within seconds, he is right back by Jessica’s side, pleading with her to support the bill, too. A vote is called and the room goes quiet for the first time in hours. Ben remains kneeling in the aisle as placards go up. More than half of the GOP caucus votes yea, as does the entire Democratic caucus — including Jessica. Shouts go up on both sides of the aisle as the Senate president announces the bill has passed. “Nice job, guys,” Ben tells a few Democrats.
As the students filter out for the night, even Jessica seems surprised by her change of heart. Smiling, she says the bill did accomplish a lot of what she wanted — and she would rather accomplish something than nothing.
On Sunday morning, that sentiment is echoed in every corner of the Boston Sheraton as Model Congress comes to a close. Looking back at their accomplishments over four days, many take to the Senate floor in the final hours and question why the real Congress has so much trouble solving the country’s issues. As one Republican senator notes: “I wish the Senate in real life would be like this and actually get things done.”