I’d say the vast majority of Americans are either mostly or completely (and probably blissfully) unaware of the arcane parliamentary rules of the United States Senate. There are a great many of them – of which many seem unfathomable, if not outright bizarre, to the average layperson, me included much of the time. However, there are longstanding traditions of allowing for debate, etc.
Another tradition of the Senate is that the chair rotates: Senators take turns with the gavel, and are expected to keep order in the Senate in an impartial way which respects the rules and traditions, just like other Senators are supposed to respect and adhere to the judgment of the chair. Yesterday, Senator Al Franken happened to be taking his turn with the gavel.
Because the Senate is scheduled for the holiday break coming up very soon, and because there are several critical pieces of legislation still on the table (health care, defense appropriations, etc.), the rule had been made at that time that each Senator was allowed a maximum of ten minutes to speak on the subject of health care. Many had already done so, when the junior Senator from Connecticut, the repugnant foe of health care legislation of any value, rose for his allotted ten minutes.
That’s when things got interesting.
Lieberman, in his usual Droopy Dawg fashion, bloviated about how, now that he’d pissed in it, he was liking the flavor of the “new and improved” health care bill a lot more – maybe even enough to vote for it – when his ten minutes expired. Franken, keeping time, informed him that his time had expired and that it was someone else’s turn for the floor. All common: Senators routinely go over their allotted time; it’s the job of the chair to keep things on schedule. However, Lieberman requested “unanimous consent” to continue speaking for another “moment” (he did not say “minute,” which has a distinct meaning in Senate parlance, but “moment” which sounds short, but could have been any amount of time). Al Franken repeated that no, Lieberman’s time had expired, and that he (Franken) objected to Lieberman receiving further time to speak. Watch it. Lieberman seems surprised, and also immediately jumps to the conclusion that Franken is simply being a jerk because he’s as irritated with Lieberman’s grandstanding and ruining health care reform as many of the rest of us are.
To be fair, I have no idea whatsoever what Franken’s motivations were. But the larger point here is that Franken’s motivations are largely irrelevant: Lieberman’s time had expired. And, while there is an unspoken tradition of comity and unlimited debate in the Senate, it’s also not often that they are up against a hard deadline (a recess for holidays) with so much important legislation to still dispose of before the break. The bottom line is that Franken was well within the purview of the chair to enforce the previously agreed-upon ten minute limit. So he did.
Well….you would have thought all hell had just broken loose. Senators from all over registered (either there on the floor or later on the political gab-fests or op-ed pieces) their disapproval of the very junior Franken’s having treated Lieberman so rudely. Among the most indignant was ol’ Grumpy Gramps McCain, who rose immediately after and remarked that never, in his 20-some years in the Senate, had he seen such disrespect. Keep in mind, this came the very day after Republican Senator Tom Coburn forced a reading of all seven hundred pages of Bernie Sanders’ single-payer amendment – a reading which would have taken over twelve hours, and would have pushed the critical vote on Pentagon appropriations beyond the end of the day, when previous appropriations were set to expire. In other words, it would have cut off funding for the troops, however briefly. Sanders’ amendment had been available for study for weeks, so that any Senator (or their staff) could have perused it at their leisure. Yet Coburn’s tissue-thin excuse was that he just wanted to make sure “everyone understood what was in the amendment.” In fact, his true goal was to force Sanders to withdraw it (even though it had almost no chance of passage) – a goal which he achieved.
It could – I suppose, theoretically – be argued that those two things are not similar: one is playing a technically-admissible “hardball” tactic to scuttle an amendment that one side isn’t in favor of, while the other is simply the rudeness of one Senator to a perceived foe, breaking with the traditions of comity and respect and debate in the Senate. Certainly, that argument is already being made on right-wing blogs, FOX News — and the floor of the Senate, by McCain and others. In fact, McCain amplifies and extends his disgust in an article in today’s Politico, in which he says the Franken/Lieberman dust-up shows the “deterioration of the Senate” (which he all-but-says is the fault of newcomers like Franken, since Lieberman’s been there for years). McCain whines: “That’s how the comity in this body has deteriorated. We got to stop – we got to stop this kind of behavior. I’ve never seen anything like it. And I hope that I don’t see it again.”
But here’s where the fun well and truly begins. This morning (or, probably last night, immediately after McCain’s “get off my lawn, you disrespectful kids” harrumph at Franken’s “temerity” and “lack of respect for tradition”), ThinkProgress set their army of interns to go comb the Senate records….and look what they found:
On October 10, 2002 — just ahead of the looming mid-term elections — the Senate rushed a debate on a war authorization giving President Bush the power to use force against Iraq. The resolution ultimately passed the Senate after midnight on an early Friday morning by a vote of 77-23.
During the course of the frenzied floor debate, then-Sen. Mark Dayton (D-MN) spoke in favor of an amendment offered by Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) that would have restricted Bush’s constitutional powers to wage war against Iraq. After a minute and a half, Dayton ran of time, prompting this exchange:
The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator’s time has expired.
Mr. DAYTON. I ask for unanimous consent that I have 30 seconds more to finish my remarks.
Mr. McCAIN. I object.
Byrd stepped in to grant Dayton time to finish his remarks. But just moments later, Byrd asked for more time to speak for himself. Again, McCain objected, prompting Byrd to chide him for doing so. “This shows the patience of a Senator,” Byrd said. “This clearly demonstrates that the train is coming down on us like a Mack truck, and we are not even going to consider a few extra minutes for this Senator.”
Ouch….Game. Set. Weasel.
The only question, as I said in the headline, is whether John McCain is going senile, or whether he’s just another lying Republican asshole whose operating principle is IOKIYAR – It’s OK If You’re A Republican.