In The End, Few Bills Break Through Senate Gridlock

US President Barack Obama speaks at a reception in honour of designated Supreme Court justice Elena Kagan August 6, 2010 in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC.
US President Barack Obama speaks at a reception in honour of designated Supreme Court justice Elena Kagan August 6, 2010 in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC. Mandel Ngan/Getty Images

As the Senate heads home for summer vacation, Democrats and Republicans remain mostly at loggerheads. On a handful of issues, a few Republicans were persuaded to go along with Democratic plans. But it may take political miracles to get much more done before the November elections.

It's summertime, but at least in the Senate, the living has not been easy.

After a session that spilled late into Thursday evening, the Senate now stands adjourned until mid-September. The majority Democrats were determined not to leave for summer recess empty-handed, as both parties gird for potentially game-changing midterm elections.

Partisanship in the Senate has grown sharper as those elections draw nearer -- and yet, not all was gridlock as the session ended.

Senators did confirm Elena Kagan for the Supreme Court before leaving. But of the 63 votes she got, only five came from Republicans -- the smallest vote total ever for a high court nominee appointed by a Democrat. Right after that vote, the Senate's No. 2 Democrat, Dick Durbin, recalled a conversation he said took place between Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Majority Leader Harry Reid.

"Sen. McConnell came to Sen. Reid several months ago and said, 'If you haven't noticed, it's over. You can stay as long as you want, but nothing's going to happen,' " Durbin said. "And so, anything we've had has been nothing short of a political miracle."

With 59 in the Democratic caucus, making political miracles happen comes down to finding one or two Republicans for the 60 votes needed to thwart GOP filibusters. And there have been plenty of those.

When Democrats tried bringing up a bill earlier this week with $10 billion to avoid teacher layoffs and $16 billion to help states pay for Medicaid, Republican leader McConnell objected.

"This bill is a brazen attempt to funnel more money to public employee unions before an election at a moment of record deficits and debt," he said.

But by cutting the original money for teachers by more than half and by finding funds elsewhere to pay for it, Democrats won over Maine Republican Olympia Snowe. "Given the dire economic circumstances that most states are confronting today, I think we understand that we've got to alleviate that financial hardship at this point," she said.

Maine's other GOP senator, Susan Collins, also backed the bill, which passed Thursday. If the House approves it as well in a special recess session next week, Democrats will have a job-saving accomplishment to tout to constituents. They have clearly been looking for ways to score points with voters.

Majority leader Reid mentioned such efforts a few days ago: "One of my senators came to me and said that they did some testing of all the issues, and surprisingly, child nutrition scored extremely high with focus groups in all the polling. We want to get that done."

By late afternoon Thursday, Arkansas Democrat Blanche Lincoln was thanking her Senate colleagues for "rising above partisan politics" and passing the bill she sponsored that boosts funding for school lunches.

It clearly helped that Lincoln got Georgia's Saxby Chambliss, the top Republican on the Agriculture Committee she chairs, to co-sponsor the measure. Likewise, when New York Democrat Charles Schumer proposed a bill Thursday spending an additional $600 million on securing the U.S.-Mexico border, it was something Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions simply could not refuse.

"As we leave this Congress to go home and get ready to campaign, many of the people, they can say maybe they did something that was helpful in eliminating illegal immigration -- something other than suing the state of Arizona," Sessions said.

But Reid's effort to push through a scaled-back energy bill this week ran into opposition not only from Republicans, but from some Democrats as well. Payments to settle class action lawsuits by black farmers and American Indians also got blocked. A jobs bill with loans and tax breaks for small businesses is stalled.

That legislation will be taken up again when Congress reconvenes for four weeks in September. Democrats say they will also try to deal with the expiring Bush tax cuts.

But even a political miracle may not be enough to get so much done so close to the big election. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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