As he stepped into a Capitol elevator late Thursday, bundled up in preparation for the winter winds, Sen. Mitch McConnell cracked a thin smile. For the low-key leader of Senate Republicans, good spirits were certainly in order. Minutes before, his cross-aisle counterpart, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, had sounded a death knell for the much-maligned $1.1 trillion omnibus spending package — the pork-packed keystone of the Democratic lame-duck agenda.
McConnell, in an interview with National Review Online, called it a “victory for the country.” It was also a victory for his caucus, which has battled all month to maintain a united front. Indeed, to halt Reid’s spending spree, McConnell had to spend the week tethered to the phone, twisting the arms of Republican appropriators.
Retiring GOP senators like Kit Bond (Mo.), George Voinovich (Ohio), and Robert Bennett (Utah) were considered by numerous Senate aides to be, at varying points, susceptible to Reid’s machinations. Other Republicans rumored to be mulling a “yea” vote on the omnibus included Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Sen. Thad Cochran (Miss.), who alone requested more than $500 million worth of earmarks in the bill.
McConnell’s challenge was to softly cajole pork-friendly Republicans, many of whom hold senior status in the upper chamber, to abandon their home-state projects. At one point in the deliberations, Reid mentioned nine Republicans (though not by name) who had signaled their support. Senior GOP aides dispute that number, but either way, the bill appears to have come dangerously close to passing. It took McConnell’s flurry of phone calls, the zealous efforts of Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), and threats from Sens. Tom Coburn (R., Okla.) and Jim DeMint (R., S.C.) to force a reading of the bill to ultimately crash the omnibus.
With his vote-count dwindling, a “sorry and disappointed” Reid took to the Senate floor to announce that he would pull his spending bill, caving to McConnell’s push to pass a simple, one-page resolution to continue government funding over the holiday recess. For full effect, in a move reminiscent of the health-care debates earlier this year, Republicans had hauled the entire 1,924-page cinder block of a bill onto the Senate floor. They’d come prepared for a showdown.
“I’m proud of our team for holding together,” McConnell said. “I’m proud of the appropriations-committee members who decided that this is not the way to do it.” Instead of following Reid’s demands, “we decided that we’re not going to pass a 2,000-page bill that nobody has seen since yesterday. That’s not the way to operate and that’s not the message from the November elections. We decided not to do it. Unified Republican opposition is what got it done.”
Democrats had mixed feelings about how Reid handled the omnibus at the eleventh hour. In an interview outside the Senate chamber, NRO asked Sen. Tom Harkin (D., Iowa) about whether he thinks Reid caved. “How about that caving,” Harkin said, as he turned to an aide. “I told you — that’s the way it’s going to be printed. That’s the way it’s going to be written.”
“I felt that we should have brought it up and made them vote on it,” Harkin said. “We have things in there on defense, homeland security, education, health, energy, and infrastructure that won’t be in the [continuing resolution]. At least I’d make them vote on it. Now they can say, ‘Well, I didn’t vote for it.’ We never had a vote. I’m very disappointed. We should have had a vote on it.”
But the numbers, it seems, never came together for Reid, who had to fight a public-relations battle for the bill as he counted noses. The rhetoric between camps was heated. McCain, who spent the week railing against the omnibus, was beside himself. He had called the bill a “monstrosity” and “the most outrageous repudiation of the voter I’ve seen since I’ve been in the United States Senate,” and warned Republican colleagues who would dare support it.
On Thursday, after Reid’s announcement, McCain took to the floor to call the bill’s defeat a “seminal moment” in Senate history. “For the first time since I’ve been here, we stood up and said ‘enough,’” he said. He lamented, half-jokingly, that he would never again have the opportunity to chastise pork-addicted colleagues.
Most Democrats, however, didn’t think anyone deserved to be celebrating. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) slammed Republicans for “congratulating themselves” on voting down $8 billion worth of earmarks, which comprised less than one percent of the entire spending package. He wondered where the “high fives and glorious speeches” were when the Senate approved a tax deal that would add hundreds of billions to the national debt. “Nobody came to the floor and talked about deficits then,” he said.
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D., Mo.) was determined to set the record straight. “It’s like they think the American people are stupid,” she told NRO following a heated floor speech. “Everybody knows the bill was drafted by both Republicans and Democrats. Mitch McConnell had $100 million worth of earmarks in the bill that he was trying to make everybody think . . . had been hatched in some Democrat’s office somewhere . . . I mean, how do you spell hypocrisy?”
McCaskill had a difficult time trying to appear both outraged and delighted at the same time. As the most outspoken Democrat against the omnibus bill (who also happens to be up for re-election in 2012, in a swing state), McCaskill said she respected the Republicans who decided to change their votes, but dismissed the notion that the outcome was a win for the GOP. “It’s not a basketball game,” she said. “This isn’t about winning and losing.” She accused McConnell of playing dirty politics. “I think we need to get away from treating the work of the Senate as if it was a sporting event,” she said.
She was also referring to the remarks of freshman Sen. Mark Kirk (R., Ill.), who committed what some might call a “rookie mistake” in the aftermath of Reid’s announcement, by sarcastically inquiring, “Did we just win?” and continuing to egg on a fervid John McCain. Kirk’s rhetorical dig was rather poorly received on the other side of the aisle, to say the least. Kirk’s fellow freshman, Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.), was not impressed. “I hope he wishes he hadn’t done that,” Manchin said. “I wouldn’t have done that.”
Even some Republicans acknowledged that the rhetoric got a little out of hand. Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.), who delivered a calm, thoughtful speech that seemed to ease tensions in the chamber, said afterward: “What I hope will happen is that both sides will work together because it’s going to take both sides to do this. . . . There were a lot of things said that probably didn’t need to be said, but the outcome is what needed to happen.”
In the ensuing clamor to leave the chamber after a long day’s work, senior Republicans hailed Reid’s shift as a capitulation — a move not only right, but necessary in this political climate.
“It’s the right result for the American people,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the chairman of the Republican conference and member of the appropriations committee. “Of course, the better result would be if we had a regular appropriations process, where we passed bills one by one within spending limits, cutting things that need to be cut and spending where we need to spend.”
Still, Reid’s relenting, Alexander said, “shows that the majority of senators, and certainly all Republicans, listened to the American people in November, who said ‘we’re worried about spending, we’re worried about debt, and we want you to do everything you can to bring the debt under control.” The answer, senators ultimately concluded, was to “not pass a trillion-dollar bill now, no matter how well intentioned it may have been, but instead to move toward passing a short-term continuing resolution that will enable new members, come January, to participate in the process.”
Democrats looking for a silver lining may take comfort in the fact that the bill’s failure opens up time on the Senate calendar for deliberation on the DREAM Act, an immigration cause célèbre on the left, and repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy on homosexuality. Reid said he intends to pursue weekend votes on both items.
In the end, both sides seemed to acknowledge that the rhetoric needed to change, that the seriousness of the nation’s problems called for bipartisan solutions. “We’re all at fault here,” said Sen. Mark Begich (D., Alaska). “No more show and tell, no more gimmicks.”
We’ll believe it when we see it.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review. Andrew Stiles is a 2010 Franklin fellow.