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The cruel Senate

PH2009121300144.jpgThe Senate is very proud of its reputation as a collegial and decorous institution. At this point in the chamber's history, though, that reputation largely obscures a vicious and cruel operational reality.

Take Ted Kennedy, for instance. He spent a lifetime serving in the Senate. His warm relationships with his Republican colleagues were proof that the Senate's unique culture could foster a cooperative environment between liberals and conservatives. His many bipartisan bills served as proof that, at one point, it actually had. But when his death threatened to imperil the passage of the bill he considered the work of his life? Not a single Republican stepped forward to assure him that his absence wouldn't be the decisive factor. There was no offer to act, at least from the standpoint of procedural votes, as if the wishes of Kennedy, or of the voters who elected him, mattered.

Another example came last night, when the ailing Robert Byrd was wheeled in at 1 a.m. to break a filibuster on the manager's amendment. Byrd's presence was not required, especially considering that he'd clearly telegraphed his intention to vote to break the filibuster. But Republicans forced him to travel to the chamber. Indeed, shortly before he arrived, Sen. Tom Coburn headed to the floor to propose a prayer. "What the American people ought to pray is that somebody can't make the vote tonight," he said. "That's what they ought to pray."

The Senate hasn't just lost a bit of its collegiality. It's become heartlessly ferocious -- a place where the death of an honored friend presents an opportunity to kill his legislation, and in which the infirmity of an ailing colleague is seen as a potential path to procedural victory.

It is, of course, a tough world out there. There are greater injustices than senators being mean to one another. But the Senate's rules are predicted on courtesy and cooperation. The body cannot function without unanimous consent, and procedures like the filibuster were included because the expectation was that the body could routinely discover consensus. At this point in its history, however, consensus is a laughable goal. Basic decency doesn't even seem achievable. And if the behavior of the Senate has changed, then so too must its rules.

On a related note, read Paul Krugman on the filibuster.

Photo credit: Harry Hamburg/AP.

By Ezra Klein  |  December 21, 2009; 11:15 AM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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Like the president, your political hero, you really need to spend some time in red states, Ezra, to understand Republicans. Those of us from ruby-red corners of the country have predicted this partisan outcome from the beginning. Your recent laudatory posts on Olympia Snowe are downright laughable now.

Posted by: scarlota | December 21, 2009 11:29 AM | Report abuse

Tom Coburn is the major cause of the delay, as Mary Landrieu said. He is the heir of Jesse Helms on the meanness scale. At some point even his colleagues in the GOP may turn against him.

The GOP has tied itself so tightly to the tea partiers that they can't do even a symbolic fold now so that they can get home for Christmas Eve with their families, and some may not get back until late on Christmas Day. The party of Christmas and family values has to work Christmas Eve to prove to their hyperpartisan base that they are sufficiently godly and hyperpartisan themselves.

What goes around comes around.

Posted by: Mimikatz | December 21, 2009 11:33 AM | Report abuse

"But the Senate's rules are predicted on courtesy and cooperation."

That should be "predicated."

Posted by: simpleton1 | December 21, 2009 11:38 AM | Report abuse

Scarlota, to be quite honest, the very last hing we need right now is to be paying attention to what you call the "ruby red corners". Indeed, since this decent, honorable man became President alkl we have heard from is right out of those red states and all I have seen is an assortment of oddballs, crackpots and cranks floating the most hysterical conspiratorial claptrap, even exceeding the old John Birch laugher that Eisenhower was a communist.

You people have absolutely nothing to say that would commend you to anyone with the slightest degree of intelligence. I am sick to death of the media romanticizing a bunch of rednecks, racists, and assorted bigots and wackos as some sort of "populist" movement. If what you freaks are peddling is populism then this country has already gone over to the slime of humanity.

Posted by: jaxas | December 21, 2009 11:41 AM | Report abuse

"The Senate hasn't just lost a bit of its collegiality."

This piece sucks Ezra. The subject you're writing about has nothing to do with the Senate or collegiality, and everything to do with the Republican party. As a group, they are obviously out of their minds. Sheldon Whitehouse is entirely correct. Once this thing passes and it becomes apparent to the entire nation that HCR is a net positive, the GOP is going to look really stupid. Or, I should say, they SHOULD look stupid. But the beltway press won't make that happen. Ezra can't write stories that say "the GOP is made up of a bunch of raving maniacs." No, he has to write stories about "how sad it is that the Senate has become so uncollegial!" Hello Ezra: Tom Coburn is openly encouraging people to pray for Robery Byrd to die. That's not a "bit of collegiality" it's pathological. Wake up dude.

Posted by: john7 | December 21, 2009 12:02 PM | Report abuse


It started with Think Progress posting the video, then HuffPo jumping to the conclusion that Coburn was talking about Byrd, and now to this. Take a deep breath. It is ridiculous to suggest that Coburn was praying Byrd could not make it. You have really taken this one out of context.

Posted by: gocowboys | December 21, 2009 12:04 PM | Report abuse

Ezra says:
"Basic decency doesn't even seem achievable. And if the behavior of the Senate has changed, then so too must its rules."

Gosh, maybe they should try buying off a few Republican senators along with the Democrats from Nebraska and Louisiana.

Posted by: spamsux1 | December 21, 2009 12:05 PM | Report abuse

You misread me, Jaxas. Over twenty years ago I upgraded from my Southern evangelical roots to NYC indigo liberalism. But I know my people like I know the back of my hand. Ezra seems genuinely shocked by Coburn's comments, and the lack of any GOP support for Ted Kennedy's lifelong dream . . . but I sure as hell ain't surprised. Rather, I wonder why the president and his media minions like Klein and Yglesias ever thought even Olympia Snowe was a "get." They clearly don't fathom what Republicans are capable of, as did, say, the Clintons.

Posted by: scarlota | December 21, 2009 12:07 PM | Report abuse

Let's also add, for the record, that the transformation of the Senate to a 60-vote body, with arrogant senators dictating the terms of conference, denudes the House of its powers.

"It is ridiculous to suggest that Coburn was praying Byrd could not make it."

Go La Salle. What part of "[w]hat the American people ought to pray is that somebody can't make the vote tonight" causes you particular difficulty?

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | December 21, 2009 12:09 PM | Report abuse

is ridiculous to suggest that Coburn was praying Byrd could not make it.

He was merely praying that some generic Senator who has difficulties getting around fail to show up. No need to name names.....

Posted by: PhD9 | December 21, 2009 12:10 PM | Report abuse

There ought to be an agreement between the parties that, starting in 2012, there will be some limits placed on the power of the filibuster. Those limits can be drawn up now with the expectation that both parties can agree to the rules changes now before we know who will control the Senate at that time. Since both parties have chafed at the perpetual filibuster recently, it shouldn't be so hard to get everyone on board, should it?

Posted by: jeffwacker | December 21, 2009 12:16 PM | Report abuse

"Go La Salle. What part of "[w]hat the American people ought to pray is that somebody can't make the vote tonight" causes you particular difficulty?"

Oh, I don't know - perhaps the fact that this statement is totally up to your own interpretation? I hope you at least watched the video. There was no obvious connotation that would indicate he was referring to Sen. Byrd. But perhaps this is like a George Tenet 'slam dunk,' huh?

Posted by: gocowboys | December 21, 2009 12:19 PM | Report abuse

I do not think it is worthwhile to get worked up with these parliamentarian antics. That is how it works in most countries. Back home in India, if one dares to watch Indian Parliament (Loksabha); they literally fight! Same with many other Asian Parliaments. Of course no one is talking here that the oldest democratic Chamber in the world adopts bad practices. For that reason, what Tom Coburn implied, that was sinister and I believe time has come for the whole Political class (all those who are parliamentarians) to denounce that. At least Dems in Senate need to pass a resolution condemning that non-sense.

The real deal is:
- how we change filibuster and
- start changing the undemocratic nature of this Senate.

We need blogs post about that and sustained Media campaign about that. These Senators will be loath to change, but we voters need to pull them kicking and screaming out of their absurd and undemocratic methods. The ultimate goal should be to make Senate represent 'people's will' in proportional manner. Yes, I would like to be that 'barbarian at the gate' or that Jacobean.

What has happened on PO, even American Democracy cannot sustain such deadly wounds. I do not support PO, but clearly substantial number of American voters (I would hazard even majority) wanted that and they were denied that. Whether that policy is good or bad or beneficial ultimately to Americans is a different matter. American voters have right to 'make mistakes' as well; as long as Majority demands that. That is what was slaughtered in PO. Net result - unbelievable attack from Progressives and Left on President Obama. One should read Huffington Post or Daily Kos; those were more visceral than Republicans or Tea Party. It almost seemed like we got a new Opposition Leader - Howard Dean. This is really bizarre considering all that the Left has survived through and how hard all of them worked to get Obama elected.

No polity can sustain such body blows. (Tea Parties are attacking there on GOP side...). Dysfunctional and unrepresentative Senate is one of the core reasons for all this. For better of American Democracy or even survival, this needs to change.

Posted by: umesh409 | December 21, 2009 12:27 PM | Report abuse

I don't see that it matters whether the reference was to an individual Senator or not. The message is that it's a good thing to have blocked legislation when a state loses half of its representation, regardless of the reason.

That's an affront to democracy. Our system is supposed to sift through, in its own imperfect way, the will of the people and the interests of its states. And now we have a member of that institution saying it would be great if that process were frustrated just by having someone not show up for a vote.

The fundamentally undemocratic nature of the cloture requirement is bad enough. To then expressly hope for a member's absence to further exacerbate the situation shows a disrespect not only for the Senate but for the foundation of the entire system of government.

Posted by: dasimon | December 21, 2009 12:31 PM | Report abuse

Since getting rid of the filibuster is one of your recurring themes, how about a recent history review of what liberals and conservatives wrote about it during the 'nuclear option' days (2005). Anybody switch sides? The Gang of 14 was quite bipartisan.

Posted by: Hazelite | December 21, 2009 12:34 PM | Report abuse

Were the republicans' actions toward Byrd meaner than, say, riding in a klan cross burning?

Posted by: truck1 | December 21, 2009 1:01 PM | Report abuse

Of course, this typically one-sided piece of Klein blather fails to take note of Sheldon Whitehouse's reprehensible speech on the Senate floor and it's impact on Senate comity.

And, seriously, because Ted Kennedy died, Republicans shouldn't try and stop a bad bill, just because it's being touted as being in his honor?

Your blog becomes more of a joke with each passing post.

Posted by: FreeMas | December 21, 2009 1:04 PM | Report abuse

When will we see someone call out the GOP Senators with a "Have you no shame, Senator?" morality questioning moment to change the terms of debate?

And if it happened, would it be reported in the traditional media?

Posted by: grooft | December 21, 2009 1:05 PM | Report abuse

It's a nasty business, but reciprocal. We did the same thing back in the day when Strom Thurmond was a million years old.

What it really highlights is that the great good would be for the Senators to retire when they become too old and frail to do the work.

Posted by: surak1 | December 21, 2009 1:11 PM | Report abuse

Of course the filibuster is a problem, but, not because of this bill. Health Care Reform--a sweeping change to the governmental landscape that is bitterly and resolutely opposed by one of the two major parties--is just the sort of bill that the filibuster is _for_. Yes, it is awful that it takes 60 Senators to conduct even routine business or move humdrum legislation. But HCR is not routine or humdrum.

Even if we tamed the filibuster and put it back in its historical context, is there any doubt that HCR would be the one bill in this Congress that Republicans would filibuster? Even if it meant a proper filibuster--thermoses and sandwiches and reading the phone book?

The filibuster is over-used, yes, and it has become penalty-free, and both of those things are wrong. But you have to be absolutely against the filibuster 100% of the time to think it was wrong to use it against this particular piece of legislation, and I'm not sure I can go along with that.

Posted by: ckbryant | December 21, 2009 1:15 PM | Report abuse


The conclusion of the gang of 14 was the the filibuster would only be used for extrodinary circumstances.

Repiglicans have broken that agreement by filibustering the defense appropriations bill just as a delaying tactic, because the bill passed by 88-12.

The hypocrisy of repiglicans is mind boggling. Blaming the dems for voting at 1:00 am when it was their delaying tactics that forced the marathon sessions (how many times in the past have bills been read word for word on the senate floor?) in the first place. Once it was clear that the dems have 60 votes, they could have all gone home early. Instead the repiglicans are forcing the senate to stay in session just for spite. Voters should remember this next year.

Posted by: srw3 | December 21, 2009 1:21 PM | Report abuse

ckbryant, the thing is there are plenty of things that repiglicans like about the bill but they won't support it for partisan reasons. The dems did spend 6 months catering to the finance committee's repiglican members compromising away several good cost saving measures and still only 1 voted for the committee report and she stuck with the filibuster of the whole bill. The fact is, every policy initiative that the dems have proposed has been subjected to the 60 vote rule. The # of repiglican filibusters is unprecedented up by over 70%. That is the abuse that we need to stop.

Posted by: srw3 | December 21, 2009 1:33 PM | Report abuse

A better issue to address is why we have people who are 90 years old and need to be wheeled into the Senate representing us? No company or university would put up with that.

Posted by: MBP2 | December 21, 2009 2:05 PM | Report abuse

I think the big problem is that a nearly rotting corpse can still be senator. I feel sorry for Byrd that he is on deaths door, but come on! He should not be surprised. He chose to run for re-election knowing that he was ancient and in poor health. I can kind of feel bad for that senator who had the stroke (Johnson?), but Byrd and Kennedy knew when they were chose to run for re-election that they were unlikely to fulfill their obligation. The rules need to be rewritten so that an interim can replace senators who are unable to use good judgement and gracefully leave before they are useless.

Posted by: cminmd1 | December 21, 2009 2:10 PM | Report abuse


Are you talking about the same Ted Kennedy who single handedly killed the universal health care proposed by Nixon. And also single handedly killed Mary Jo Kopechne in Chappaquiddick with no regard for her health care? That Ted Kennedy does not deserve any respect.

Posted by: cummije5 | December 21, 2009 2:22 PM | Report abuse

Yes he is. Autopsy showed that she lived for awhile entombed in a submerged car, while Ted Kennedy conferred with family aides about what would be best for him.

Posted by: truck1 | December 21, 2009 3:47 PM | Report abuse

Actually it was Wilber Mills chair of the Ways and means committee back in 74 who was willing to cut a deal with Nixon on a health care bill with an employer mandate. It died when he drove into the tidal basin with the stripper and Nixon was consumed by Watergate.

Posted by: MerrillFrank | December 21, 2009 4:13 PM | Report abuse

"That is how it works in most countries. Back home in India, if one dares to watch Indian Parliament (Loksabha); they literally fight!"

I've always felt that legislators fighting it out honestly man to man in the Chamber deserve a measure of respect. Coburn doesn't deserve any. He's just disgusting and anybody defending him too.

Posted by: carbonneutral | December 21, 2009 4:18 PM | Report abuse

Wilbur Mills did not drive into a body of water. That distinction is reserved for Ted Kennedy. He was stopped by police and the "stripper" (can we not call her exotic dancer?) jumped into the tidal basin to escape. Kind of the reverse of what happened at Chappaquidick.

Posted by: truck1 | December 21, 2009 5:55 PM | Report abuse

I can't believe any of this is happening to begin with.Why does it seem so important to vote on this at 1:oo AM Monday morning,and the weekend before Christmas of the year 2009 when it will not help anyone until 2013.I am also puzzeled about were are all the new doctors,nurses,and health care fisilities going to come from.
My wife and I are both retired Military and (was)supposed to have free health care from our retirement benifits,are we now going to be taxed for what we had already earned as our retirement benifits???
If this was on the up and up ,why the middle of the night vote ,why the hurry,and why the closed doors??I am a registered Democrate and am very embarassed of the way MY Congress are acting. It is inexcusible and shamefull.If something was so important such as this Bill was that much of importance,Why the middle of the night,and why secret meetings and why does it not kick in for three or four years????
We are being looked at by every nation that has admired us and our way of life. I now believe, we have lost the respect of those nations, for the greatest nation in the world has to vote a Bill into law in the middle of the night and through the biggest blizzard the state hasn't seen in almost a hundred years. I hope you Congressman have recieved your Christmas present in this that you have passed,because you are acting like spoiled little brats. Shame on you all.
I wish I had the resources to beat in our state Mr,Durban ,You are Shameful, sir
You forgot who you work for sir.

Posted by: sarg836 | December 21, 2009 6:38 PM | Report abuse

I stand correected about the details of the Mills incident, (I was in my teens at the time it happened 35 yrs ago) however the main point was that he was close to cutting a deal with Nixon and they were both overtaken by scandal which ended up postponing health reform for another generation.

Posted by: MerrillFrank | December 21, 2009 7:24 PM | Report abuse

I certainly hope that Tom Harkin introduces legislation on reforming the Senate filibuster and does it soon. Once healthcare reform passes, the issue will once again fade from the public mind. But the slow erosion of American governance will not.

Posted by: orteleus | December 21, 2009 8:39 PM | Report abuse

"Of course, this typically one-sided piece of Klein blather fails to take note of Sheldon Whitehouse's reprehensible speech on the Senate floor and it's impact on Senate comity." you have GOT to be kidding me Freemas! After accusing the President of EVERYTHING under the sun, callin HIM a Nazi, a socialist, a Kenyen, and WORSE, Sheldon Whitehouse should be ashamed? You are out of your mind.

Posted by: Mego1 | December 21, 2009 11:48 PM | Report abuse

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