A funny thing happened in Washington yesterday, and not many people noticed -- bipartisanship broke out in the Senate. While the chattering classes (and most Republicans) were fixated on whether Rush Limbaugh was the Republican Party's leader, the conservative movement's leader, or just leading them into the wilderness for 40 years (one can but hope); the Senate was taking care of some legislative business. In a bipartisan fashion. Almost one-fourth of Senate Republicans voted to move last year's budget along -- voting with President Obama and with the Democrats, and voting against the man who not so long ago was actually the leader of the Republican Party: John McCain.
Will anyone in the media notice? It's doubtful. Mere weeks ago they were all fulminating over the "failure" of President Obama's bipartisan outreach on his stimulus package, and pointing out over and over again how he "only got three votes out of over 200 congressional Republicans" in an effort to... um... well, I'm not really sure why they spent two weeks on this particular storyline, to tell you the truth. But obsess over it the media did, which would make you think they would follow up on the story if a large chunk of Republicans actually did vote with the Democrats and Obama on a large spending bill.
But then, I remind myself, this is the mainstream media we're talking about, so I shouldn't expect too much of them.
The bottom line of this story is that nine out of forty-one Republican senators just broke ranks with their party and voted to strip a McCain amendment from a budget bill. All Senate Democrats except two voted to strip the amendment as well, for a total vote of 63-32 (with 4 not voting). A list of these aisle-crossers is at the end of this article, for those interested in the wonky details.
In all fairness, I have to admit this vote isn't exactly a poster-child moment, which partially excuses the media's lack of attention. Because they were voting, in essence, to keep all the earmarks in the bill -- something which McCain calls a "bipartisan disease."
A quick recap of our story thus far is in order here, for those unaware of recent developments. The "budget" that Congress is supposed to pass each year is not what Obama just proposed (and what will be haggled over for the next few weeks), but in reality a series of appropriations bills which are due by the first of October, when the federal fiscal year begins. Last year, nine of these bills were not completed. You can fault Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid for this tardiness, but they knew that if they had managed to pass anything it would have just been vetoed by Bush, so you can't really fault them too much for their lateness.
The current deadline for passing these bills (before the checks literally start bouncing) is this weekend. So Congress is hustling through an "omnibus appropriations bill" which wraps the nine delinquent bills into one. The 2009 bill is around $410 billion, of which something in the neighborhood of $8 billion is from 8,000-9,000 "earmarks." These are pet projects inserted into spending bills by individual members of Congress. The earmark spending in this bill is roughly equivalent to the balance of power -- 60% of it is Democratic, and 40% Republican. But the total of the earmarks is only two percent of the budget money being allocated (something else that often gets lost in this debate).
Senator John McCain regards earmarks as evil. He's at least consistent on this, since he's always been against earmarks. So he introduced an amendment to the omnibus bill which would have stripped out all the earmarks it contained. The Senate voted his amendment down yesterday. McCain, as might be imagined, is not happy about this state of affairs.
Which brings us up to date. Now, it must be pointed out that getting nine Republicans on a test vote for McCain's amendment does not mean that they're all going to vote for the final bill. And it's easy to question motives of those who did vote for it (how many of their pet projects were in the bill, one immediately wonders). Nevertheless, this is news. Obama just got a quarter of the Senate Republicans to vote with him on an important budget bill. This counteracts the drumbeat of "Obama's bipartisan efforts are naive, they're failing, and they're going to fail all the time," which was repeated ad nauseum during the stimulus debate. Journalistic honesty demands spotlighting this political sea change.
Which means it's not likely to happen any time soon. (Sigh.)
At this point, it is uncertain how many Republican votes the 2009 budget will get when it passes the Senate. But it is going to pass, and it's going to happen in the next few days. When it passed the House last week (with 16 Republicans voting for it, and 20 Democrats voting against), the news was buried in the avalanche of other news items during a very busy political period (Obama's speech, Obama's 2010 budget blueprint, and Obama's Iraq speech, just to name three big ones).
But this week the media's got no excuse. Rush Limbaugh may be big (you can take that however you wish), but he's not as big as getting a budget through Congress at light speed. That is the actual news taking place this week, just in case anyone was wondering. Instead of endlessly talking about the shocking news that a far-right entertainer gave a far-right speech to a group of the farthest-right of the far-right -- or even endlessly questioning why such an event was treated like a presidential candidate's speech by some cable networks, perhaps we should talk about the actual news that Congress is getting something big done. With Republican help.
Maybe it's even time to rephrase the old anti-war slogan: What if they passed a budget and nobody noticed?
[Here is a list of who crossed the aisle or didn't vote on McCain's amendment. For a full list, see the official vote count from the Senate. The bill is H.R.1105, and McCain's amendment is S.AMDT.592, if you want to look it up.]
Democrats voting with McCain (2)
Evan Bayh (IN), Claire McCaskill (MO)
Republicans voting against McCain (9)
Lamar Alexander (TN), Robert Bennett (UT), Christopher Bond (MO), Thad Cochran (MS), Susan Collins (ME), Lisa Murkowski (AK), Richard Shelby (AL), Olympia Snowe (ME), Arlen Specter (PA)
Not voting (4)
Kent Conrad (D-ND), Mike Johanns (R-NE), Teddy Kennedy (D-MA), Jeff Sessions (R-AL)
Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com