Monday, January 02, 2006

Last Year's Senate Shows Why 2006 Looms Large

When Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) shut down the U.S. Senate on November 1 to draw attention to GOP stalling on a true investigation into rigged Iraq-war intelligence, Majority Leader Bill Frist cried like a colicky baby.

"The United States Senate has been hijacked by the Democratic leadership," Frist cried. "Never have I been slapped in the face with such an affront to the leadership of this grand institution. From now on, for the next year and a half, I can't trust Senator Reid."

Republicans did a lot of such whining in 2005 about partisanship on the part of Reid and leading Democrats every time Democratic senators stood up for their beliefs. But an analysis of how Senate business was conducted last year shows a minority party rendered almost entire impotent by the Republican side of the aisle and what was nothing less than a GOP blockade of almost all Democratic initiatives.

Looking at all roll call votes in 2005 reveals a Republican-dominated Senate that, far from practicing what they preach and extending a hand of cooperation across the aisle, went out of their way to scuttle almost every amendment and bill sponsored by Democratic senators.

Of the 366 Senate floor votes taken in 2005, 179 were sponsored by Democrats. Even using the most generous interpretation of these votes – counting all 179 issues, regardless of their legislative nature – Senate Republicans killed 134, or 75 percent, of Democrat-sponsored legislation. Many of those defeats came on straight party-line votes and, of the 45 bills and amendments submitted by Democrats that did pass, many made it through only because of a few votes from Republican moderates such as Lincoln Chafee (R-RI), Susan Collins (R-ME) or Olympia Snowe (R-ME).

The truly damning picture of the successful Republican effort to thwart Democrats emerges when one omits seven procedural votes from the number that passed -- such as a "motion to instruct" which almost always passes by wide margins, regardless of sponsorship – and votes that are so non-partisan that no opportunity for conflict exists.

Of the 38 Democratic bills that the Republican leadership allowed to slip through (after removing seven procedural votes from the 45 total "agreed to"), nine of those were benign acts that passed by unanimous votes or, in one case, 94-6. For example, in July, a bill sponsored by Tom Harkin (D-IA) "...recognizing and honoring the 15th anniversary of the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990" passed 87-0. A vote of 100-0 passed an amendment by Mary Landrieu (D-LA) to give a tax credit to employers continuing to pay the salaries of Guard and Reserve employees serving in Iraq. Sponsored by Dick Durbin (D-IL) an almost-clerical bill mandating a change to the numerical identifier used to identify Medicare beneficiaries under the Medicare program was OK with everyone 98-0.

Hardly issues that even a Republican could fight. When you take out those softball pieces of legislation that either everyone would agree with or nobody would dare vote against, the lack of bipartisan spirit by the Senate's majority party are even more apparent.

When those 12, harmless measures are discounted, you're looking at a total of 160 amendments sponsored by Senate Democrats and an astounding 84 percent of those shot down by the Republicans. And this only takes into account those measures that were even allowed to make it to the floor for a vote.

And what did the GOP Senators find so onerous? (Other than the fact that the legislation was sponsored by a Democrat.)

Two attempts by Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) to raise the federal minimum wage, S. amdt. 44 and S. amdt. 2063, went down by votes of 49-46 and 51-47, respectively, with only a couple of Republicans crossing the aisle on behalf of working Americans. John Kerry (D-MA) and Jack Reed (D-RI) tried three times to getting funding for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) and failed on all of those attempts. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) introduced legislation to protect Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil drilling and another bill to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil imports – both died on the Senate floor.

Bigger, Republican-sponsored bills – one, an anti-Bankruptcy gift to the financial industry and another measure that almost entirely neutered any possibility of lawsuits against the firearms industry – passed despite many attempts by Democrats to make them less harmful to the American people.

The Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005, which took effect in October, makes it almost impossible for Americans to file for bankruptcy any longer, no matter how dire the circumstances that drove them to that end. The best Senate Democrats could do was propose amendments to the bill, in an attempt to water down how many middle-class and low-income people it could hurt. Also sponsored by Kennedy, S. amdt. 28 would have exempted debtors whose financial problems were caused by serious medical problems from any means testing in filing for bankruptcy. The measure couldn't make it past Bill Frist and was voted down.

S. amdt. 32, by Jon Corzine (D-NJ), sought to preserve existing bankruptcy protections for Americans in economic distress if they acted as caregivers to ill or disabled family members. Dick Durbin (D-IL) sponsored two bankruptcy-bill amendments, S. amdt. 49 and S. amdt. 110. One would have protected employees and retirees from losing their life savings in corporate bankruptcies, while the other attempted to exempt debtors below the nation's median income from filing restrictions.

All were defeated on primarily party-line votes – almost all Democrats voting for and almost all Republicans against.

Democratic amendments to the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act – such as S. amdt. 1620 by Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) to exempt cases involving guns and children from lawsuit restrictions – were similarly shot down by the GOP. On the national security front, Harry Reid pushed S. amdt. 1222, which specifically would have prohibited "...Federal employees who disclose classified information to persons not authorized to receive such information from holding a security clearance." The bill was defeated 53-44 with every single Republican voting against it.

Charles Schumer (D-NY) had two amendment defeated (S. amdt. 1189 and S. amdt. 1190) that would have provided $70 million to identify and track hazardous materials shipments and provide new security programs for inspection of air cargo containers -- both were defeated by the GOP leadership.

So here's your options when looking at just a small sampling of 2005 Senate votes: You can conclude that Republicans either don't give a rat's behind about children, the elderly, working Americans, gun-crime victims or national security or that they're simply out to block any measures brought to the Senate floor by Democrats. But when you look at how 2005 came and went with Democrats essentially powerless to do anything in the Senate and with the Damocles Sword of the GOP revoking filibuster rights hanging over their heads, it's clear that the midterm elections this year loom very large indeed.

While it's interesting cocktail-party talk to discuss 2008 presidential possibilities and there are certainly few things more enticing than a Democratic House able to bring articles of impeachment against George W. Bush, we see by the numbers and unrealized good deeds that regaining control of the Senate makes 2006 a political Super Bowl year.

There is much work to be done -- and November 7 will be here before we know it.

Update: Go here for a full listing of all Democrat-sponsored legislation in the 2005 U.S. Senate