Having grown up in the Midwest, I know what a frozen river looks like, and I know what happens when the ice finally breaks in spring.
The ice rarely freezes evenly, and it does not break up any more uniformly. Sheets and chunks break loose in unpredictable ways, moving, jamming into each other, breaking again, in a mad tumble as the river begins to flow.
At bends and narrows, chunks and sheets of still-solid ice will collide and pack, holding back or diverting the water until enough force builds up behind the ice, and enough warmth penetrates its depths, so that, with a rush, it breaks loose and flows on downstream again.
Of course, winter is about to start, not spring. Still, watching events in Washington, one could have the sense that there has been a spring-like thaw.
What has held back the flow of action has been the pitched battle between Democrats and Republicans, as well as internecine conflict within the Republican ranks. What has broken the ice free has been a pair of concerted efforts employing very different methods and producing very different consequences.
One is the idea of compromise, of small steps uncertainly made, in hopes that, eventually, we get where we need to go. It is in evidence in the budget deal hammered out in conference committee. The bill passed the House in solidly bipartisan fashion last week. On Wednesday this week, it cleared the Senate and headed to the President’s desk for a signature one can be sure is coming. The bill satisfies no one, making only small steps (perhaps illusory) toward addressing many concerns about budgets, services and debt. But it accomplishes something large majorities on both sides of the aisle seem to care about deeply: preventing any more self-inflicted wounds on the institution of Congress.
While the overall feeling is that the budget deal represents a small flowering of bipartisan cooperation, the passage through the Senate may have revealed a cold snap that is a consequence of the other method of breaking the ice on the legislative process in Washington. While the bill passed the House with the support of majorities of both parties, the Nays among Republican senators outnumbered the Yeas by a margin of 4-to-1. Only 9 Republican senators joined all 55 members of the Democratic caucus in support of the bill . . . bipartisan, yes, but hardly overwhelmingly so.
There are a number of things to which one could point to explain the difference between the House and Senate votes. I think the most compelling is the source of the wounds of the respective delegations.
House Republicans were the most engaged in the government shutdown and the brinkmanship games with the debt ceiling in October . . . and they probably are the most damaged by its consequences. Most Senate Republicans, on the other hand, are probably less wounded by the budget battles than by the way the Senate’s Democratic majority chose to break the ice on nominations: a change to the filibuster rules that has deprived the Republican minority of its most potent means of stopping President Obama’s appointments. Following close on the heels of the use of the ‘nuclear option,’ roughly a dozen nominees, administrative and judicial, were confirmed in partisan votes after painfully drawn out meetings of the Senate earlier this month. The process may or may not have been necessary, but it certainly was scarring for both sides.
The spirit of negotiation has not been lost, however. On Thursday this week, the two parties in the Senate reached a compromise on approving some nominees, delaying others, and passing the National Defense Authorization Act, all in time to go home for the holiday break.
I do not believe that the legislative process can or should be about holding hands and singing ‘Let There Be Peace On Earth’. We have two parties (and factions within the parties) because the American people speak with a variety of voices, all of which should be heard and attended to as we navigate the rough waters of the 21st century. And just as in nature there are times when rivers do not flow (at least up north), there may be times when the legislative process should be put on ice while a larger sense of direction emerges.
But after two years of bitter partisan winter, I’m hoping that spring really is in the air.