WASHINGTON — It wasn’t elegant. But when senators averted a partisan explosion over filibuster rules, they proved the Senate still embraces at least a smidgen of two-party cooperation.
Increasingly, that distances the Senate from the House, even if the Capitol Rotunda is about all that separates them physically.
In fact, the House’s political divisions extend beyond the familiar Republican-Democratic split. And that poses major problems for a national party that lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections.
The notion of a Senate that runs more smoothly and effectively than the House, even for a few days, is a head-scratcher.
House rules and traditions are designed to let the majority party operate efficiently, even ruthlessly, if it wants. The House minority often cannot offer amendments to bills. Majority members sometimes act as if the other party doesn’t matter, or even exist.
The Senate, in contrast, has always granted significant powers to individuals and minority parties, which help them bottle up bills and frustrate many a presidential agenda.
Lately, however, the Senate makes legislating look almost easy compared to the House, where Republican leaders increasingly struggle to control their members.
The Senate passed a farm bill, 66-27. But the House’s original farm bill imploded, embarrassing GOP leaders and undermining long-standing support for food stamps and farm subsidies.
Senators voted 68-32 for a major immigration overhaul, strongly supported by President Barack Obama and by national Republican leaders worried about their presidential prospects with Hispanic voters. House conservatives, however, are objecting loudly, raising serious doubts about whether the two chambers will ever reconcile their differences.
The list goes on. Even with Republicans able to stop almost anything with a filibuster, the Senate in the past year approved aid to Hurricane Sandy victims, renewed the Violence Against Women Act, and approved a White House-brokered solution to the “fiscal cliff” tax increase.
Most House Republicans balked at all three bills. That forced Speaker John Boehner to violate his “majority of the majority” guideline and rely chiefly on Democratic votes to pass measures he felt were important to his party’s well-being.
Boehner, R-Ohio, says he won’t resort to that tactic to pass a major immigration bill, making his task more difficult.
Parliamentary powers that let one party dominate the House can turn on that party, especially if its most ideological members see their personal interests diverging from the leadership’s.
“It’s much easier to work across party lines in the Senate, and therefore you can do an immigration bill or a farm bill or a postal reform bill and really have a bipartisan product,” said Sen. Ben Cardin. The second-term Maryland Democrat spent 20 years in the House.
Because one party can control the House, Cardin said, “you start developing policy only within your caucus. And because of the numbers, it gets to be a pretty extreme product; it’s the lowest common denominator.”
That’s what is happening in the House, whose districts — thanks to gerrymandering, Americans’ choices on where to live, and other factors — increasingly are solidly Republican or solidly Democratic, said Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
The House Republican caucus, in particular, he said, is “dominated by people whose districts are homogenous echo chambers.” Especially in the heavily Republican South, Ornstein said, House members don’t care as much about GOP presidential nominees’ fates “as they think about their own re-election and their own ideology.”
“The only fear they have is being primaried,” Ornstein said. That’s the lawmakers’ term for being challenged in their party’s primary, often by someone accusing them of ideological softness.
Unlike House members, senators represent entire states. That often forces them to deal with an ideological array of voters and interest groups.
A senator from Missouri, for instance, represents urbanites in St. Louis and Kansas City, plus residents in the more conservative rural regions and small towns. A typical House member represents one group or the other.
“States are just more diverse places,” said Ross K. Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist.
Also, Baker said, senators’ six-year terms — compared to House members’ two-year terms — “give them a little more protection from voters.”
Because Senate leaders lack a House speaker’s tools to impose party discipline, they sometimes let rank-and-file senators seek compromises to tough problems. A bipartisan “Gang of 14” crafted a cease-fire over judicial nominee filibusters in 2005. A “Gang of 8” worked out this year’s immigration bill.
In addition, Baker said, “senators have a pretty high opinion of themselves.” That’s not necessarily bad, he said, because they’re more likely to see themselves as statesmen with responsibilities to the entire nation.
Whiffs of that attitude permeated efforts this week to persuade Democratic leaders to drop their threat to change filibuster rules governing presidential executive nominees. A rare, three-hour, senators-only meeting Monday night, in the Old Senate Chamber, allowed Republicans and Democrats to address each other in a forum dripping with history.
Sen. Susan Collins, a centrist Republican from Maine, later told reporters, “I talked about the fact that I’d been a member of the Gang of 14, that I worked with virtually everybody on the other side of the aisle.”
Collins said she expressed sadness “that we were contemplating this kind of change, which I felt would undermine the protection of minority rights that had always been a hallmark of the Senate, and distinguished us from the House.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said she wrote Collins a note saying, “You actually sounded like Patrick Henry.”
“There’s a certain mystique in that chamber,” Feinstein said of the room, used by senators until 1859.Logistics aside, it’s hard to picture the House’s 435 members addressing each other without resorting to the fiercely partisan quarrels so familiar to that chamber.
Meanwhile Tuesday, Boehner spoke in the House chamber, again denouncing Obama’s health care law. “A train wreck,” he called it.
The GOP-led House has voted about 40 times to repeal parts or all of the health care law, even though Republicans know the Senate would never concur, and Obama would never sign such a repeal.
The Senate still regularly bogs down in partisan and parliamentary impasses. For sheer futility, however, senators might point to a chamber that votes more than three dozen times for a measure with no hope of ever being enacted.