Summer blues

Politics | Back from recess, Senate Republicans have a very bad week

Issue: "Death blow," June 17, 2006

If Senate Republicans missed the signs that their first week back since the Memorial Day recess might not be their finest, they weren't watching Sen. Sam Brownback.

On Monday around 4 p.m.-two hours after the chamber reconvened to debate the Marriage Protection Amendment (MPA)-Mr. Brownback, conspicuously without his contagious schoolboy grin, was on the floor with a stack of blue and white foam-board posters in tow looking like he'd shown up for a high-school presentation he wasn't quite prepared to give. The scene presaged a hard, week-long battle, and as the senator's restive pre-speech demeanor betrayed, one he knew he'd likely lose.

That's the sort of week it was: a week of lost and squandered opportunities for the Senate Republican leadership. Not only did the second attempt in two years at a marriage amendment fail, but so did a vote on a bill to end the so-called "death tax" on inherited wealth, a tax fiscal conservatives have had in their crosshairs for a decade.

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Proponents of MPA needed 60 votes for cloture to force a vote. They got 49-meaning the amendment died before a floor vote. The same is necessary to proceed on the "death tax" bill. It fell short by just three votes, with the few Republican "nay" votes providing the deciding nudge toward failure.

To add insult to injury, the same GOP leadership nearly allowed a vote on a bill that grants native Hawaiians self-governing rights similar to Native American tribes. Conservatives in opposition say it establishes a race-based government, yet it enjoys the support of several prominent Republicans like South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, as well as the votes, when crunch time came, of nine senate Republicans, including John McCain and John Kyl.

Conservative critics complained that the leadership was wasting the Senate's time on a blatantly unconstitutional bill that could set a policy for dividing America.

Not surprisingly, conservative voters watching this unfold wonder why with mid-term elections in five months-within earshot-senators are forgetting that their legislating today sends echoes out to November, and that this week's performance may have come out a clamorous cacophony at least suggesting leadership that's adrift.

Some disappointed with the week's outcome say there is a silver lining. Focus on the Family spokeswoman Carrie Gordon Earll says her organization's goal was "to bring the issue before the Senate."

"We want to have the new [senators] on the record to see how they vote on this," she says. From Focus on the Family's perspective, the issue is moral, not partisan. But Ms. Gordon Earll cautions senators: "If you vote against the marriage protection amendment and the death tax, those are concrete votes that the public may hold against you in November."

According to Maggie Gallagher, president of the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, Democrats, and complicit Republicans like Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, may face perils of their own. She says they "spent precious floor time explaining why they didn't want to talk about this issue. When that's your leading argument, you know you are losing the debate, at least at the intellectual level." She adds that in 2004 "several senators who opposed a marriage protection amendment lost elections"-notably former Minority Leader Tom Daschle.

But critics say intellectual "wins" are toothless if they can't pass legislation like the marriage amendment. Moreover, the Republican majority shouldn't allow the embarrassing Native Hawaiians Act a vote, they say. Majority Leader Bill Frist's all-or-nothing approach to the "death tax" bill also angers them; he won't even consider compromises by lawmakers such as Sen. Kyl (R-Ariz.).

It all leaves conservatives a bit flummoxed-and for the 15 Senate Republicans up for reelection, that's a bad place to be five months from Election Day.


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