When Senator Harry Reid, the Democratic leader, heard a few weeks ago that the House took less than an hour to unanimously approve an unemployment bill that had languished for a month in the Senate, aides said he did not know whether to laugh or cry.
In the polarised Senate, even popular bills and generally acceptable executive branch nominees that eventually win easy approval first have to crawl though time-consuming procedural thickets. Now it is hard to see how Congress will make up for the lost time. While the Senate hopes to devote most of December to a landmark debate on health care, time is running out on a number of other difficult and significant issues that must be resolved by the end of the year.
What follows the Thanksgiving recess may be a headlong rush into a legislative train wreck. Among the obstacles on the track is raising the national debt limit, always a wrenching vote for lawmakers trying to avoid looking like out-of-control spenders. Congress must also either finish seven more spending bills or pass another stop-gap measure to keep the government operating past mid-December. Provisions of the Patriot Act are set to expire. Highway construction and unemployment programmes need an extension. The federal estate tax will temporarily lapse without Congressional intervention. To top it off, lawmakers also await President Barack Obama’s decision on how to proceed with the war in Afghanistan, and they must decide how to pay for any increase in troops.
As they brace for the frantic finale, Democrats blame Republicans for all of it, saying the minority party in the Senate has slowed almost everything Democrats have sought to do, filibustering even routine matters.
Republicans do not see it that way. They say Democrats have caused some of the delays by feuding among themselves, failing to use their 60-seat majority to full advantage. They say that in the debates on the unemployment bill and other issues, Democrats refused to let them offer amendments out of a desire to avoid politically treacherous votes.
And now the Republicans say that if they want to clear the calendar, Democrats ought to scrap the health care legislation and focus on the more pressing issues of the moment, like the spending bills and the Patriot Act.
“That’s what we ought to be doing,” Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, said on Friday. “It would probably take from now until Christmas to do all of these measures that we should be dealing with. Instead, we’re spending time trying to do something the American people clearly don’t want.”
And when Republicans see something that they think the public does not want — or that they themselves do not want — they do not consider it their obligation to help Democrats advance what they view as flawed policy. “It is true that we have not helped them do bad things,” said Don Stewart, a spokesman for Mr. McConnell. — © 2009 The New York Times News Service