Odd Couple Breaks the Ice in Frozen Senate

Republican Richard Burr and Democrat Barbara Mikulski have the only bill on the agenda with a chance of passage.

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 05: Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) arrives at a Senate Select Intelligence Committee closed briefing on Capitol Hill, September 5, 2013 in Washington, DC. The committee is meeting behind closed doors to be briefed on intelligence matters regarding military action against the Syrian government for using chemical weapons against its own people last month. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
National Journal
Michael Catalini
Feb. 27, 2014, 2:47 p.m.

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.

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