On most mornings, Sens. Chuck Schumer and Lamar Alexander can be found in the gym in the Russell Senate Office Building. They gossip as they bike or lift weights side-by-side, but the chats often return to a topic weighing on both their minds: the woeful the state of the Senate and how things might be fixed.
It was through these sessions that the New York Democrat and Tennessee Republican hatched a plan. Since late last year, when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid triggered the so-called nuclear option limiting the minority party's ability to filibuster some presidential nominees, the Senate has been at a virtual standstill. The acrimonious chamber has grown even more constipated than it had been before the bomb—and that’s saying something, since it was already on track to be the least productive session in more than 50 years.
While many senators have argued that only a drastic change—like undoing the nuclear option or deploying it even further—could ease the logjam, Schumer and Alexander turned to a kind of legislative Metamucil: a bland, feel-good bill that could lubricate the process. And so, the Senate on Wednesday began debate on the reauthorization of a popular child-care development block-grant program. "The goal here is to get off to a small but positive start with bipartisan bills, so that we can get back to legislating and tackling bigger issues in a responsible way," says Schumer, the No. 3 Senate Democrat. "I hope it works.”
No limit was made on amendments to the bill, nor was there a time limit set for debate. Reid handed control of the floor over to the bill’s authors. Amazingly, no one filibustered. No one introduced controversial, poison pill amendments that would bring down the measure. In fact, things went so surprisingly smoothly that the bill is now expected to pass Thursday afternoon—well ahead of schedule. Schumer, 63, and Alexander, 73 are now hoping a few more Metamucil doses could bring the Senate back into something approaching “regular order,”—what is known in the Senate as the normal procedure through which bills are proposed and passed by committees and then debated and voted off the floor.
"It is very hard this year, because a lot amendments are of the gotcha variety, and there are a lot of vulnerable Democrats up [for reelection], giving Reid a major reason to fill the amendment tree," says Norm Ornstein, co-author of "The Broken Branch: How Congress is Failing America and How to Get it Back on Track."
"So starting small, testing the waters on a balance that preserves some basic standards of propriety, is a good way to go, and, I think, very popular," Ornstein says. "But the stakes of the election are so high, and the temptations of individual renegade senators so clear, that I am skeptical that this is more than a modest breakthrough."
Next up: a manufacturing bill co-authored by Missouri Republican Roy Blunt and Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown, an energy efficiency bill co-sponsored by New Hampshire Democrat Jeanne Shaheen and Ohio Republican Rob Portman and, potentially, a deal on aid to Ukraine (though that bill is already hitting some partisan road bumps).
And there are still plenty of road bumps ahead—some might say mountains. Republicans remain leery that they are somehow getting played. They fret that when it really matters—like when Democrats bring up their economic agenda in the coming weeks—Reid will again block amendments and blame Republicans for intransigence and not supporting the middle class. This is, after all, an election year. And much of the agenda has not been written for compromise—say, a $9.10 minimum wage increase which could draw some Republican support, versus the $10.10 increase Democrats are proposing, which is a nonstarter with Republicans. Building post-nuclear trust is apparently going to take a lot more Metamucil, like a truck load of it.
So, perhaps Republicans should start going to the gym in the afternoons when Reid goes. The Nevada Democrat, though, once famously said he never gets approached in the gym, “probably because I look really ugly naked.”