Partisan gridlock robs senators of feel-good laws
WASHINGTON (AP) — The "Bipartisan Sportsmen's Act of 2014" seemed ideal for Sen. Kay Hagan's re-election bid in politically divided North Carolina, where many people like to hunt and fish. Her bill would open more federal lands to hunters, and conservation groups liked it too.
The first-term Democrat lined up dozens of co-sponsors from both parties and appeared ready to claim a feel-good accomplishment. And yet the proposal still collapsed, one of many uncontroversial measures to die as members of Congress, consumed by midterm election politics, deny each other achievements — then complain about their do-nothing colleagues.
The dilemma may boost Republicans' hopes of winning the six new seats they need this fall to gain the Senate majority. The closest races involve Hagan and other Democrats from states that President Barack Obama lost.
With the president relatively unpopular, these senators are desperate to cite personal achievements that set them apart from generic Democrats. Their opponents, meanwhile, suggest they are deadbeats.
"Look at the folks running for re-election. What have they done?" said Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., who supports Hagan's GOP challenger, Thom Tillis. "She's got nothing," he said of Hagan. Burr added, however, "She's not alone in that."
Senate business has ground to a near crawl this year, although lawmakers appear poised this week to send new funds to the beleaguered Veterans Affairs Department and pass a modest highway improvement bill before adjourning for all of August. On most other matters, however, neither party is willing to grant even modest political wins to the other.
In May, Republicans used their filibuster powers to kill a bipartisan energy efficiency bill. Democrats had refused to clear GOP amendments that would promote drilling and loosen environmental regulations. The bill's chief Democratic sponsor was Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, who faces a serious GOP challenger this fall.
That same month, a bipartisan effort to renew more than 50 expired tax breaks also died amid a dispute over amendments.
Senators long have bickered over which amendments can be debated and voted on as part of a larger bill. Both parties sometimes use these amendments to score political points, forcing opponents to cast no-win votes on contentious matters unrelated to the underlying legislation.
Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has sharply limited Republicans' ability to offer such troublesome amendments. Infuriated, Republicans stifle bill after bill with the filibuster powers they enjoy by holding 45 of the Senate's 100 seats.
Hagan's sportsmen's bill went from sure thing to dead duck when several Republicans demanded amendments to expand gun rights. Some Democrats wanted tighter gun restrictions instead, and Reid pulled the plug.
Hagan said it was "extremely frustrating" that her bill "fell to the partisanship divide."
Still, she said, she has worked with Republicans to achieve other goals, several of them involving military bases in her state. One bill expanded health benefits for people exposed to contaminated water at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune. Another restored a tuition assistance benefit for the military.
"I came up here to negotiate, to work together and get things done," Hagan said.
Republicans suggest her achievements are thin soup. "The only thing Kay Hagan has accomplished in Washington is becoming an automatic 'yes' vote for whatever new tax or regulation President Obama wants," North Carolina GOP Chairman Claude Pope said.
Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska is another first-term Democrat seeking re-election in a GOP-leaning state. Republican candidate Dan Sullivan says Begich has done little, airing an ad stating, "We need real results, not just talk."
Begich gleefully filmed a response ad from the same spot: an Anchorage convention center that is largely credited to his efforts. It's telling, however, that Begich pushed for the building as Anchorage mayor, not as a senator.
Begich concedes the Senate is deeply frustrating. "You can complain about the way things work," he said in an interview, "or you can adapt and get things done."
Begich says he has adapted, mainly by working quietly in committees and elsewhere to insert or protect Alaska-friendly language in "must pass" bills before they reach the Senate floor. He said he helped safeguard fighter jets and missile defense operations in his state, and assured that native Alaskans can obtain "traditional foods" — such as caribou stew — in federal buildings.
Many senators "want to do show and tell," Begich said. "I'd rather sit there quietly and watch bills pass, and say I got my work done."
Largely due to fiscal conservatives' objections, Congress has dramatically cut back on targeted or "earmarked" spending, which allowed senior lawmakers in Alaska and elsewhere to steer millions of federal dollars to projects back home.
"I love earmarks," Begich said, "but I saw their day was dying."
Earmarks, or "pork barrel" spending, helped many a lawmaker win re-election in past years. That tool is gone now, and the Senate's fierce partisanship makes it hard to replace.
"It used to be 'What have you brought home?'" said Burr, who spent 10 years in the House and won a second Senate term in 2010. "We're way past that. Now it's 'What have you done while you were there?'"
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