[Web Special] The GOP: Slowdown in the Senate

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They say time heals all wounds. In Congress, it can cause some too. Congress usually moves slowly. The Senate is designed for just that purpose. But there are signs now that two partisan fights could turn the already slothful Senate pace downright glacial, and even threaten President Barack Obama’s sweeping domestic agenda.

Take the case of early sparring over Sotomayor’s confirmation. GOP senators say Democrats’ July 13th start-date for hearings doesn’t give them enough time to review the roughly 3,600 cases she’s ruled on. (Plenty of cynics add that the more time they keep Sotomayor on hold, the more time GOP investigators have to dig up damaging dirt on her.) But whatever their motivations, Republicans are hopping mad that the hearings are set for about one month from today. And they’re starting to float warnings that Democrats’ moving too fast might just mean Republicans start moving really, really slowly. ...(continue reading)

“I would hope we would kind of work it out without everybody trying to pick fights by setting artificial timetables,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), a member of the Judiciary Committee and the GOP Senate leadership. And if not? Cornyn suggests Democrats’ ambitious and high-profile summer agenda of health reform, climate legislation and Sotomayor’s nomination itself, could grind to a halt. “There’s obviously a lot of things the president said he wants to be addressed, and Sen. [Harry] Reid, to be addressed,” Cornyn told a group of reporters. “But I’m just saying for any single senator that would want to object [in order to slow floor proceedings down], they have the power to do that.”

Republicans are deep in the minority these days. Democrats are on the verge of the 60 votes they need to break time-eating filibusters. But there’s more than one way to grind the Senate to a crawl, and Republicans don’t need a lot of votes to do it. Objections, amendments, procedural tactics: Senate rules are chock full of ways for lawmakers, alone or in small groups, to drag simple bills out for a weeks. And they can do it without the power of the filibuster. Cornyn insists he’s not threatening anybody. But it seems pretty clear he’s sending a message about Sotomayor’s confirmation: move too fast, and Republicans can endanger President Obama’s plans for a highly productive legislative summer.

“It certainly is irritating to a lot of people, and you never know,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), the elder statesman of Judiciary Republicans, said of the Sotomayor scheduling battle. Hatch was asked whether frustration over scheduling has Republicans considering the use arcane rules in the Judiciary Committee that could delay—or effectively filibuster—Sotomayor’s nomination. “Sometimes the only way you can get fairness is through the procedural rules,” he said. Like Cornyn, Hatch swears he’s not threatening anyone.

Not so for Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). Graham is livid that an amendment he and Sen. Joe Lieberman (Ind. Dem-Conn.) attached to an Iraq/Afghanistan war funding bill is likely to be stripped out by the House. The amendment bans the release of photos depicting abuse of detainees in US custody. Some who’ve seen the photos say they’re similar to what came out of Abu Ghraib prison in 2004; some say they’re even worse. President Obama is behind Graham and Lieberman, but liberal House Democrats say the ban is too broad and flies in the face of the accountability and transparency the president has said he champions.

So Graham has a plan. First, use his senator’s prerogatives to slow the war funding bill down to a crawl when it comes back to the Senate next week. If that doesn’t work, plan B is to make life maddeningly slow for Democrats’ agenda until the photo ban passes. “We’ll continue to de everything we can to attach it to other legislation, to slow up the process,” Graham said, standing next to Lieberman. Graham argues that releasing the photos will inflame enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan and cost the lives of U.S. soldiers. “That’s why we’re not going to do any more business in the Senate,” Graham said. “Nothing’s going forward until we get this right.”

He didn’t bother to say that he’s not threatening anyone.