* Major problems go unresolved
* Snowe retirement puts spotlight on failures
* Both sides say Senate must mend its ways
By Thomas Ferraro and Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON, March 8 The U.S. Senate is
under the gun to pass a transportation bill that would rev up
road construction and create or save millions of jobs.
But in the month since the chamber started considering the
bill, it has faced gridlock worse than a Los Angeles freeway at
rush hour. Feuding parties loaded up the highway bill with more
than 100 amendments covering everything from birth control to
foreign money laundering. After weeks of partisan squabbling,
passage remains uncertain.
At one point, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid
vented a common frustration. "I don't know why everything we do
has to be a fight," he said. "Not a disagreement, a fight."
The Senate, long described as the "world's greatest
deliberative body," for two centuries stood as an elite and
powerful chamber that offered a reasoned counterpart to the
larger, more impulsive House of Representatives.
But in recent years it has strayed far off course, according
to interviews with 10 current and former members.
Faced with pressing issues like a ballooning national debt,
an ailing healthcare system and the threat of climate change,
the Senate now consumes its time with contentious debate that
usually ends with no action.
For three years, the chamber has been paralyzed by routine
budget bills. Judicial nominations languish, even when they have
bipartisan support. And some of the Senate's most dramatic
moments, broadcast on national television, are little more than
calculated brinkmanship to stir up voters.
The poisonous atmosphere is taking its toll. Members
complain of wasted time and thwarted legislative goals. The
retirement announcement last week from Republican Senator
Olympia Snowe, who expressed frustration at Senate inaction,
prompted others to join in with similar assessments.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham told reporters Snowe's
decision should be "a wakeup call to Congress."
"We have reached a point where we do so little and waste so
much time that it really does, I'm sure, weigh heavily on us
all," Assistant Senate Democratic Leader Dick Durbin, who is
close to President Barack Obama, said in an interview.
Echoed first-term Republican Senator Mike Johanns, a former
Nebraska governor, "We came to Washington to do things. We need
to do them."
CHAMBER OF TITANS
Historically, the Senate has played a pivotal role in
American political life. Besides considering proposed laws, it
has the power to conduct impeachment trials, approve
presidential nominees, investigate government wrongdoing and
Its members included titans from both parties - Democrats
like Lyndon Johnson and Edward Kennedy, and Republicans like Bob
Dole and Howard Baker - who fought hard but still guided
landmark legislation that changed American society.
So prestigious was the Senate that 16 of 44 presidents,
including Obama, are alumni.
The founding fathers envisioned the Senate as a deliberative
body that would balance the more raucous 435-member House.
President George Washington theorized that it would "cool"
legislation, just as a saucer cools hot tea.
But the Senate Historical Office website illustrates how
dramatically these early hopes have shifted.
It displays a 95-year history of Senate "cloture motions."
When a minority of senators oppose a bill, a vote on a cloture
motion can remove the roadblock. Their frequency gauges Senate
cooperation, or lack of it.
In 2009-2010, the first two years of Obama's presidency,
137 time-consuming "cloture motions" were filed in the Senate.
The total in 1965-66, when civil rights battles divided the
chamber: 7. In 1917-18, when the Senate began keeping cloture
vote records: 2.
Procedural spats are only one measure. Partisan fights last
year defined both the Senate and the House, where Tea
Party-dominated battles deepened the divide on tax and spending
issues. The feuds pushed the U.S. government to the brink of
shutdown three times and a near debt default.
Instead of concrete action, Senate time is often consumed
with symbolic "message votes," a publicity-seeking tactic
employed by both parties to stake positions on issues they know
will play well with voters.
In December, the Senate voted on a constitutional balanced
budget amendment, long a pet project of Republicans who knew it
would not pass but wanted to corner Democrats into a "no" vote.
Similarly, Senate Democrats orchestrated failed votes on a
millionaires' surtax that Republicans oppose, mainly to bolster
advertisements casting Republicans as defenders of the wealthy.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell accused Democrats of
pushing legislation "that's designed for bus tours instead of
Snowe, 65, first elected to the Senate in 1994,
represents a vanishing breed in a chamber paralyzed by partisan
A Republican moderate, she was willing to work with Obama, at
least during his first year in office. But she drew the wrath of
her party's conservative wing, and over time, moved further to
Last week, announcing her retirement decision, Snowe
expressed growing frustration with forces pulling at members,
even in the face of national crises.
"If you thought there would be galvanizing moments that
would have prompted the Congress, and here in the Senate, to get
things done, it would have been now given the collective weight
of events," Snowe said.
Other members share her frustration.
Democratic Senator Benjamin Cardin said neither major party
has figured out how to deal with the often uncompromising
anti-big government Tea Party movement. He said lawmakers
aligned with the group were "not really interested in governing,
just interested in their positions."
Increasingly, incumbents are facing challengers in primary
elections as Congress' approval ratings hit record lows. To
survive, many believe they need to be even less bipartisan, less
In 1970, 33 percent of lawmakers were considered moderates,
based on voting records, according to James Thurber of American
University's Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies.
In 2011, the figure was 5 percent, said Thurber, who in the
1970s worked for liberal Democratic Senator Hubert Humphrey, a
contemporary of conservative Republican Senator Barry Goldwater.
"Humphrey and Goldwater worked together. They drank
together. They liked each other," Thurber said.
But most members of Congress no longer live in Washington
year-round and many spend their off hours fighting for their
SETTING THE TONE
For Democrats, Republican leader McConnell set an
obstructionist tone when he declared in 2010 that his top
objective was to deny Obama a second term.
"If the main objective of a party in the Senate is to
prevent a president from being elected and their strategy is to
stop anything from passing, the country is in trouble," said
Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, the Democrats' 2004
Last year, Kerry served on a bipartisan "super committee" to
find major budget savings. He said talks collapsed after
conservative outsiders pressured Republicans to block any deal.
"In the end ... it was this ideological gridlock that won
the day," Kerry said in an interview.
Kerry noted that the Senate was designed to be "a
deliberative and thoughtful place. ... It was never meant to
produce no legislation or not face major consequences."
Former Senator Ted Kaufman, who spent two years in the
Delaware seat of Vice President Joe Biden, said the Republicans'
obstructionist strategy worked in driving down public approval
of Congress. If Republicans should win the White House or take
the Senate this year, he foresaw a new willingness to negotiate.
But Republicans also accuse Democrats of obstructionism,
pointing to the many initiatives cleared by the
Republican-controlled House that have stalled in the Senate.
Senator Joe Lieberman is not the typical senator. He came to
the Senate in 1988 as a Democrat and switched to independent in
2006 when liberals attacked his conservative votes. He, too,
feels partisanship has eroded the chamber's effectiveness.
"The tragedy here is that everybody I know who comes to the
United States Senate comes to get something done," he said.
"Yet people are sort of pulled apart by this process and end up
in warring camps, a kind of perpetual partisan tug-of-war."
Frustrated with the failure of Democrats and Republicans to
work together, Lieberman said this week he may vote for a
third-party candidate for president - if one emerges he likes.
"It's so partisan, it's so ideologically rigid that we
aren't coming to the middle where most people want us to be to
get something done for the country," Lieberman said.
Former Republican Senator Judd Gregg noted that partisanship
is driven by voters. More frequent primary challenges have
forced members of Congress to work harder to appeal to
ideological activists back home.
But the Senate remained "the last place in the federal
government today where you do have a working and constructive
middle," he said. He offered as proof the work last year by a
large group of senators on a $4 trillion deficit reduction plan.
They did as much as they could, Gregg said, only to see "the
president walk away from it."