Congress: The Filibuster That Stole Christmas
December 16, 2010, 6:00am

For nearly a year, Congress has discussed and publicly debated the DREAM Act, the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and the new START treaty — three major Democratic priorities. The debate has occurred on television, in committees, on the Senate floor, and a variety of other forums. First introduced in 2001, the DREAM Act was considered three times this year, finally securing passage in the House last week. Proposed in 2005, DADT repeal has been considered in committee or voted on at least five times this year. First presented to the Senate in April, the New START treaty has been President Obama’s major foreign policy priority for the last eight months. Now in the waning days of the lame duck session, the Senate has failed to secure passage of a single one of these items. The primary reason: the GOP’s continuing pattern of obstruction. On top of leaving 38 judicial nominations pending, Senate Republicans are proffering excuse after excuse to “run out the clock” on this publicly-supported agenda all in their effort to permanently hobble Obama. And when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) attempted to address Republican concerns about time by staying in session, Republicans conjured up a religious-based attack lambasting Democrats for using Christmas as a “bargaining chip.” All this could be filed under “business as usual,” if it weren’t for the fact that this GOP’s strategy now threatens a government shutdown. Many Republicans are now threatening to obstruct and oppose the omnibus spending bill — despite inserting their own earmarks into the legislation — in order to wrest control of the budget process early next year. Displaying the ultimate hypocrisy, Senate Republicans risk shutting down vital services to obstruct any measure — including their own — all for political control.

TIME IS UP: Intent on blocking any Democratic priority, Senate Republicans unleashed a litany of superficial excuses to prevent consideration of these particular measures. When Democrats first included DADT repeal and the DREAM Act in the defense authorization bill, Republicans like Sens. John McCain (AZ) and Scott Brown (MA) assailed the move as “playing politics” with troops by turning a military funding bill into “a forum for the social agenda of the liberal left.” Ignoring the fact that such insertions are both common practice and were entirely germane, Republicans lodged procedural complaints and whittled away work hours while simultaneously failing to fund the military for first time in 48 years. Now, pushed to address what they sought to put off, Republicans have thrown an ironic excuse into the cogs of the lame duck session — there’s no time left. Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) blocked a DADT repeal this week by repeatedly demanding more time to consider amendments. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) believed DADT should be repealed but voted against it to wait for a “reasonable process.” But Republicans rebuked Reid’s reasonable offer on process, compelling an exasperated Reid to exclaim, “they say we need to wait and we need as much time as possible to debate the bill — you can’t do both.” Supporters of repealing DADT say they have the 60 votes necessary to move forward on the bill. The Republican waffling over the New START treaty, however, best exemplifies the GOP’s sole intent to stall. While enjoying near unanimous support from the military, public, and every living Secretary of State, the GOP’s point man Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) consistently objects to the treaty’s consideration because of a need for time — since last February. Adding irony to the insult, Sens. David Vitter (R-LA) and Jim DeMint (R-SC), who missed 7 of the 12 hearings on START, threatened to force the Senate clerk to read the entire treaty out loud to give Senators more time to debate — a move that would cost the Senate an entire day. Though he eventually called off the threat, DeMint’s office candidly admitted that, rather than for principle, DeMint made the threat merely as a “tool” to “slow down the process.” Aware that obstructing START would “make it harder” for the Senate to repeal DADT and pass DREAM, DeMint gave the clearest articulation of GOP priorities yet: “What I’m trying to do is help run out the clock.”

WAR ON PRE-CHRISTMAS: To gut this strategy of “maximum delay,” Reid responded with “countermeasures of maximum work” this week by promising to “bring back the Senate after Christmas” to resolve any unfinished business. Their primary strategy threatened, Kyl and DeMint found their next excuse to stall in God — more specifically, Christmas. Aghast that Reid would disrespect “one of the two holiest of holidays for Christians,” Kyl turned resistance to the Democratic agenda into “a religious calling.” DeMint answered, dubbing Reid’s plans to make Senators vote on START or the omnibus bill before Christmas “sacrilegious.” Equally offended by their “sanctimonious” indignation, Reid pointed out that “millions of working Americans,” unlike senators, “don’t get two weeks off on any time, let alone Christmas week.” “We could work, as most Americans do, during the holidays,” he added. Vice President Joe Biden, a devout Roman Catholic, put it a bit more bluntly, “There’s 10 days between now and Christmas. I hope I don’t get in the way of your Christmas shopping, but this is the nation’s business.” Angry at Reid for calling out his “whining,” Kyl defended his position by insisting that while Senators have worked over the Christmas holidays before, they should not have to now because of “the needs of our constituents to see us back home.” While some might find that excuse humorous, many Christian leaders found Kyl and DeMint’s Christmas excuse to be “a misuse of the Christian holiday” and “patently unbiblical.” “For two Senators who have steadfastly opposed this on political grounds to now use Christmas to justify their position is a cynical manipulation of religion in the worst possible way,” said Sojourners’ Rev. Jim Wallis.

SEASON OF SHUTDOWN: In bemoaning the Senate agreement to consider START, Kyl said “the next order of business should be to fund the government” before funding runs out this Saturday, “and then if there’s time before the Christmas holiday” all the other issues can be considered. Indeed, all 42 Republicans made it clear that they would obstruct any agenda outside of the Bush tax cuts and government funding. But when the GOP finally has a $1.2 trillion omnibus bill to consider, DeMint is once again threatening to force the Senate clerk to read the 1,900 page bill on the Senate floor — a move that would derail the entire lame duck session and could bring about a government shutdown. Having signed up for an earmark moratorium, the GOP argument against passing their previously-touted priority is the bill’s $8 billion in earmarks. Ironically, the senators lambasting the bill are the same senators who asked for the earmarks in the first place. As Reid’s aide pointed out, supposed outrage over a hasty package means the GOP “must have forgotten that spending requests have been online for six months, that this bill was put together in bipartisan fashion, and that government-directed spending has decreased by 75 percent since Democrats took control of the Senate.” But even the one-year continuing resolution that eliminates all earmarks and limits spending that the House passed last week got “a decidedly cold reception from Senate Republicans.” “I am not going to vote for the omnibus, and, from what I hear about the CR, I don’t think it looks very good either,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). As with START, Firedoglake’s David Dayen notes that Republicans’ real motivation to vote against the bill is more likely political than principled: “they want to create a situation where the government can only be funded for a short time, so that the next Congress, which is more Republican, can get their hands on the budget earlier than October 1, 2011.” This kind of posturing proves that the GOP will obstruct absolutely any initiative — including their own legislation and their own agenda — for power.

Think Fast

The White House has released a summary document assessing the progress of its Afghanistan strategy, concluding that it is “showing progress” against al Qaeda and the Taliban. The review indicated that the administration was “setting conditions” to begin the “responsible reduction” of U.S. forces in Afghanistan in July.

Top military officials are downplaying the planned July 2011 withdrawal date in Afghanistan, telling Fox News that they “do not expect combat troops to be leaving by that time.” According to the report, “Military officials in Kabul dismissed the July timeframe as D.C. politics, saying the only date the military cares about is 2014.”

Reto Stocker, the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Afghanistan, said yesterday that Afghan civilians are being squeezed between dueling sides as armed groups and fighting have increased. “We are entering a new, rather murky phase in the conflict in which the proliferation of armed groups threatens the ability of humanitarian organizations to reach the people who need their help,” Stocker said.

The Labor Department reports that weekly claims for jobless benefit dropped by 3,000 to a seasonally adjusted 420,000 in the week ending Dec. 11. The AP reports that fewer numbers of people applying for unemployment benefits is “the third drop in the past four weeks and a sign that the job market is slowly improving.”

The House will vote today on the Obama-GOP deal to extend the Bush-era tax cuts, but the lower chamber will also vote on a measure to amend the compromise plan with a higher estate tax sought by Democrats. If the amendment fails, the House will vote on the tax bill the Senate passed yesterday.

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) said yesterday that President Obama put pressure on Democrats to vote for his tax cut compromise by saying it would be “the end of his presidency” if the deal didn’t go through. “The White House is putting on tremendous pressure, making phone calls; the president’s making phone calls saying that’s the end of his presidency if he doesn’t get this bad deal,” DeFazio said on CNN.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) slammed Senate Republicans for claiming that doing their job and voting around Christmas is disrespectful to Christians. “I don’t need to hear the sanctimonious lectures of Sens. Kyl and DeMint to remind me of what Christmas means,” Reid said during a floor speech yesterday.

Republican Senators Roger Wicker and Thad Cochran have sponsored hundreds of earmarks for their home state of Mississippi — each have more earmarks than almost any other Senator. Yet the two are prepared to vote against the omnibus bill because it contains too many earmarks, joining other Republican Senators voting against their own projects, such as Mitch McConnell (KY), John Cornyn (TX), John Thune (SD) and others.

And finally: Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) made a splash in Washington when he returned for the lame duck session of Congress sporting a new beard. Now, Coburn’s facial hair has taken to Twitter. @TomCoburnsBeard keeps the world updated about what’s important to the “peppered beard that clings to Tom Coburn’s face,” such as, “i’m ok with tom’s crusade to cut government spending, so long as he doesn’t cut me.”

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Daily Grill

“Pretending to follow in [President Reagan’s] footsteps while voting to weaken America and embolden our enemies in a lame-duck session will be remembered and punished at the polls by constituents who expect senators to do their constitutional duties by rigorously vetting treaties and providing for the common defense.”
— Center for Security Policy president Frank Gaffney, 12/14/10, referring to the New START treaty vote


“[Some suggest] that if it went to a lame-duck session, that the treaty really hasn’t been examined carefully. And it clearly has. There have been over 20 briefings of the Congress, of the Senate on the treaty. There have been over 900 questions answered. In fact, this treaty has undergone as much examination as the treaty I helped negotiate in 1991.”
— Richard Burt, a chief U.S. negotiator for the original START treaty, 11/17/10