Chomping Down on the Legislative Hot Dog

Watching the Senate work is, in the words of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., a bit like making sausage. Sure, what comes out is tasty legislation, but the innards are not something on which to dwell. It's gross.

The legislative hot dog senators served up this week for constituents back home during 4th of July barbecues -- funding for the war in Iraq, a new GI Bill and an extension of unemployment benefits -- is much less filling than senators had originally envisioned. Three of the four bills they had planned to pass were derailed by filibusters from both sides of the aisle.

It was an ambitious schedule senators set for themselves at the beginning of the week, but after a month of partisan logjam, they had a lot to get done. And there were glimmers of hope. A housing rescue package got 83 votes, a veto-proof majority early in the week. A bill to stop cuts in Medicare payments to doctors got remarkable support from both parties in the House.

Serving up the GI Bill

But as the week wore on, the partisanship continued, and thanks to filibusters on both the right and the left, senators left for their 4th of July recess late Thursday night, putting off votes on three important and timely bills, each with broad bipartisan support.

At the end of the night, only the war funding bill, which included a sweeping realignment of the GI Bill to give veterans a free ride at state colleges and a 13-week extension of federal unemployment insurance benefits, had passed. That's only one piece of legislation, one of the four things on the agenda this week, that will have passed.

"The Senate has been doing this for 230-some-odd years, and that's how it works," said Reid. "You watch the legislative process in action and it is like watching the stuff they put in a hot dog. It's probably not too pleasant to watch, but it tastes pretty good when you chomp on it. And that's what this legislation's all about."

Senators did not show themselves to be very effective butchers this week.

Housing Rescue Package Thwarted

The first piece of legislation to be cast down on the Senate floor was a much-vaunted Housing rescue package, which had been in the works all month and would have created a voluntary program for lenders and some subprime borrowers at risk of foreclosure to refinance into private but federally backed mortgages.

It also would have given $8,000 to first-time home buyers purchasing a foreclosure property, permanently updated the FHA and committed $4 billion for communities to buy foreclosure properties.

Democrats pulled the housing rescue package Wednesday night even though it appeared to enjoy a veto-proof majority in a test vote.

With more than 8,000 Americans entering foreclosure each day, Democrats were howling at Republicans who oppose the bill for insisting that an unrelated $8 billion energy tax credit bill be attached. It would have put the package in jeopardy among House Democrats who have begun insisting that all tax credits be accounted for with tax hikes elsewhere.

Filibusters on FISA

Republicans aren't the only ones to blame for obstruction. Senators moved from the housing bill to consider the FISA reform bill, which seeks to authorize the president's warrantless wiretapping program, clarify the exclusivity of the FISA law and its special secret court in arbitrating foreign surveillance, and give immunity to phone companies that received a letter from the government asking them for cooperation and perhaps wholesale access to customers data in the wake of 9/11.

While the bill enjoys majority support, liberal Democrats and some Republicans are unhappy with the immunity for phone companies. Some of the Democrats filibustered that bill, insisting that all procedural time be used, and it was pulled Thursday in the early evening.

After Democrats filibustered the FISA bill, it was back to Republicans trying to make a point that they should be a part of the legislative process in the Senate.

Their target: doctors who receive Medicare payments. The money that Medicare pays doctors, thanks to new regulations enacted by the Bush administration, will be cut by more than 10 percent as of July 1 -- that's next week. The House of Representatives overwhelmingly, with 355 votes and many Republicans, passed a bill to delay the regulations.

Republicans in the Senate objected to passing it without a longer debate and insisted that another bipartisan bill, concocted in the Senate, be considered as well.

Democrats objected to passing a temporary fix to accommodate the debate. And the House had already left for its vacation by this point on Thursday night. Because both the House and the Senate have to approve all legislation, the temporary fix wouldn't fix anything anyway.

Keeping the rolls open for Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, who were returning from a joint fundraiser at the Mayflower Hotel in Downtown Washington, D.C., Democrats fell one vote short of reaching the 60 votes they needed to proceed to the bill.

Even if it had passed, argued Republicans, President Bush has promised to veto the House-passed bill. And both the Senate and the House will be out of session next week when the pay cuts are enacted.

Back to the Drawing Board

By the time they had given up on Thursday night, everyone was itching to go. When Reid asked for 60 minutes of debate before a procedural cloture vote on the Medicare bill, the Republican leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., asked Reid if 60 minutes of debate wasn't a bit excessive.

"I would ask the majority leader if we really need 60 minutes of debate here," McConnell said. Reid thought so and the 60 minutes stood.

Threats throughout the week from Reid that members would have to change plans and cancel appearances in 4th of July parades to do the hard work of casting votes appeared to have fallen by the wayside.

If Reid had exhausted all of the time needed to overcome all of the filibusters, senators would have to be in not only through this weekend, but literally through the 4th of July.

So the Senate will go back to the drawing board, return home for the week, what's called a "state work period," ostensibly to give the impression that there is work being done at home during the recess. They've already got plans to take up the FISA and housing bills.

Whatever happens during the state work period, relaxing or tiring, senators will have some more sausage to make when they come back in July. But not too much. They're off for the month of August as well.