Congress voted Monday, after a three-day government shutdown, to fund the federal government, and therefore keep it open and functional, for 17 days. This is not a victory. It is not governing. It is lurching from crisis to crisis.
What happens Feb. 8, when lawmakers again face a deadline to keep the government funded and operational? Will they again shut down the government to force bipartisan cooperation? Will Republican leaders keep their promise to hold a vote on immigration, and specifically the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA? What will be tacked on to that legislation?
Democrats in the Senate took a huge leap of faith to trust Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to bring the matter to a vote by early February. There is good reason to believe they will be disappointed. McConnell will no doubt use DACA as a bargaining chip, just as he did with the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which was funded for six years earlier this week, but only after months of inaction from Republican leaders — and only when it offered them a political advantage in the face of a government shutdown.
Sen. Susan Collins should keep her talking stick handy. Collins convened a multi-partisan group of senators in her office over the weekend to seek a way past the impasse that shut down the federal government Friday night. The group, which grew to 25 senators, passed around a talking stick to keep the conversation orderly. Only the person holding the stick was supposed to talk. At one point, Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander tossed the stick to Democratic Sen. Mark Warner. The throw was a little too forceful, The Hill reported, and a glass elephant on a shelf in Collins’ office was broken. The stick was replaced with a toy rubber basketball, and pundits searched for symbolism.
“Susan’s office is Switzerland,” gushed Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina who helped organize the sessions in Collins’ office.
Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, also dubbed Collin’s office Switzerland. “That’s where we meet in a bipartisan way. Everyone talks with each other, trying to help each other, and not at each other,” he said.
Kudos to Collins for hosting the self-named Common Sense Coalition, which was instrumental in ending the shutdown. But the notion that talking with fellow senators was somehow novel is really troubling. There are only 100 U.S. senators, putting them in a rarefied club, with high expectations for their ability to communicate and work together. Instead of holding a stick and talking softly, maybe they should just be able to talk — without having to shut the government down. This is the lesson for Senate leadership, which likely would have drawn out the shutdown without the moderate coalition’s successful search for compromise.
It also reveals why Congress is so dysfunctional. There is no shortage of talking points in the Capitol, but as Manchin’s comments make clear, most of them are used against one another. And, as it turns out, minds aren’t necessarily changed when people are threatened or hectored. Instead, minds are changed when people listen to one another and hear the differing perspectives of their colleagues.
We will see in less than three weeks whether the lessons from the Common Sense Coalition were truly taken to heart or whether all glass figurines in the Capitol should be stored away for safety.
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