WASHINGTON - In the United States Senate, failure is not an option.
It is a requirement.
Lawmakers, unable to agree on action to deal with the looming debt crisis, set up camp on a new plateau of pointlessness Wednesday: They scheduled votes on two rival plans to cut spending – but only after guaranteeing in advance that both plans would be defeated.
Senate Republicans needed to prove to their colleagues in the House, and conservative activists everywhere, that they don’t have the votes to pass major cuts to the current year’s budget. Senate Democrats needed to prove to the White House, and to their liberal base, that they don’t have the votes to maintain the status quo.
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And so, after days of haggling, both sides agreed that they would effectively doom both proposals – severe Republican cuts and cosmetic Democratic cuts – by subjecting them to 60-vote supermajorities. As it happens, such precautions were unnecessary, because, after a three-hour debate, both proposals fell well short of even a simple 50-vote majority.
By the up-is-down logic of the Senate, the twin failure – the GOP bill went down 56 to 44 and the Democratic version failed 58 to 42 – is actually good news. It means that both sides can now sit down and negotiate a compromise that trims 2011 spending without choking off the economic recovery. Soon after the plans were defeated, in fact, word emerged that lawmakers were working on a plan to keep the government running for two more weeks – a period that would end, appropriately enough, on April Fool’s Day.
The return to the bargaining table, apparently, could have been achieved only by allowing lawmakers to shout past one another for a few hours on the Senate floor.
Sen. Dan Inouye, D-Hawaii, led off the debate with an accusation that the Republican plan would “jeopardize the economic recovery we are beginning to see.”
This was true.
Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., responded by accusing the Democrats of a “complete abdication of leadership” by offering a plan that is “completely inadequate.”
This was also true.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., attempted to defeat the Republicans by burying them in clichés: “Scorched-earth spending proposal ... Trojan horse ... dirty little secret ... the dust has settled.”
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, would not be out-hackneyed: “Moving the goal post ... low-hanging fruit ... cradle-to-grave nanny government .. . ever-expanding leviathan state.”
It was a measure of just how far things have slipped that one of the more sensible people in the chamber was Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who voted against both plans. “Neither plan will do anything to significantly alter things,” he said, pointing out that the bigger problem is with entitlement programs. “My problem with the discussion and the debate at this point is that I don’t think either side recognizes the enormity of the problem.”
Also voting against both plans was Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who scolded her own side for being “in denial ... about the nature of the problem and how serious it is.” Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., joined McCaskill in grown-up-land. “Both bills are dead, and they deserve to be dead,” he said, in uncharacteristically colorful terms. “One bill cuts too little. The other bill has too much hate.”
Hate is subjective, but it’s pretty clear that the Republican plan would do violence to everything from the FBI to food-safety inspections, and throw hundreds of thousands out of work. The Democratic plan, by contrast, has no sense of urgency, cutting only one half of 1 percent of discretionary spending. And neither does much about the long-term debt.
“By the time I finish this talk,” Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., announced on the floor, “we will have added $98 million to the debt.”
Well, then, senator: For the love of country, zip it.
Dana Milbank, a columnist for The Washington Post, can be reached at danamilbank(at)washpost.com.