The Senate seems about to burst.
Normally staid lawmakers were angrily clashing on the Senate floor Monday and the chamber remains deadlocked over an emergency package to rescue the economy from the coronavirus pandemic.
The Senate has failed twice in two days to move forward on a massive $1.6 trillion-plus economic stimulus amid objections from Democrats, causing tempers to flare among senators who are becoming increasingly agitated and restless over the frustratingly slow pace, while more Americans are getting sick and losing their jobs.
Just after noon on Monday, the usually mild-mannered Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) erupted when Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) sought to block her from speaking while he sought clarity on the Senate’s voting schedule for the day. It prompted Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) to blurt out, “This is bullshit.”
Collins apparently agreed.
“Here we are facing an enemy that is invisible, but equally devastating to the health of our people and to the health of our economy,” Collins said. “And yet, unbelievably, the Democratic leader objected to my even being able to speak this morning. Is that what we’ve come to?”
Collins confronted Schumer separately in front of his desk and pointed her finger at him. “You are objecting to my speaking? This is appalling,” she could be heard telling Schumer.
In the meantime, Schumer kept objecting to Republicans seeking recognition on the Senate floor, prompting jeers from the GOP side of the aisle. He eventually relented and consented to the Senate taking two procedural votes by voice, which sped up the process only slightly.
The episode marked a rare moment on the Senate floor: an actual debate, with senators interrupting each other while others sat back at their desks and hissed under their breath. It was a reflection of the magnitude of the crisis and the rising pressure caused by the rapid spread of a virus that has already infected one of their own, Sen. Rand Paul, and continues to ravage the U.S. economy and roil global financial markets.
Throughout the afternoon, Republicans were lining up to speak on the Senate floor one by one, angrily chastising Schumer for continuing to block procedural votes over what Democrats see as an irresponsible corporate bailout being proposed by Republicans. Cotton harangued senators by name over their objections to the GOP-authored coronavirus bill, including Democratic senators whose states are “bankrupt.”
Despite the clashes, Senate Democrats and Trump administration officials insist they are “very close” to a deal and were engaged in active negotiations as of Monday afternoon. But that didn’t stop senators from sniping at each other with open hostility. The acrimony persisted even as senators acknowledged that the issues they were confronting were among the most serious any of them have ever faced, and that responding to the coronavirus crisis demands bipartisanship.
“The country is burning, and your side wants to play political games,” Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said at one point, gesturing to Democrats.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), too, was livid in his opening remarks, accusing Schumer of treating the coronavirus crisis like a “juicy political opportunity.” Democrats were continuing to block procedural votes to speed up the legislative process, preventing the coronavirus package from moving forward as talks dragged into a fourth day.
McConnell said Democrats were seeking to add unrelated poison-pill provisions to the legislative package; Schumer said Republicans were trying to do the same, and that Democrats would continue to block further action until he reaches an agreement with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who has been running point for the White House on the congressional negotiations.
“We are working on all of these items in good faith, as we speak, and we hope and expect to conclude negotiations today,” Schumer said. “Leader McConnell continues to set arbitrary vote deadlines when the matter of real importance is the status of the bipartisan negotiations.”
Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who has expressed frustration in recent days that the Senate was still convening in person as the number of coronavirus cases in the U.S. rises above 30,000, said the tensions on the Senate floor in that moment were being “reflected” in homes all across the country.
Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), known for his folksy demeanor and dry humor, later poked fun at the seeming absurdity of what had transpired on the Senate floor.
“You know what the American people are thinking right now? They’re thinking that the brain is an amazing organ. It starts working in a mother’s womb, and it doesn’t stop working until you get elected to Congress,” he said, later adding: “This country was founded by geniuses, but it’s being run by a bunch of idiots.”
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