It had to happen. Democrats are in disarray over what to do about the expiring Bush-era tax cuts, and there have been no votes on any legislation since Tuesday morning, with the majority meeting behind closed doors nearly daily for the past week trying to chart a path forward. Republicans have dug in and decided to filibuster anything that isn't related to tax cuts and a stopgap spending measure, called a continuing resolution (CR), to keep the government operating. And the frustrations boiled over onto the Senate floor in a display of political theater on Wednesday.
Senate Democrats were visibly furious when all 42 of their GOP colleagues sent a letter to Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., essentially promising to block any measure that comes before tax cuts and a CR. One after another, Democrats in the majority sought to bring up a number of other measures, including an extension of unemployment insurance benefits which expired Tuesday on two million Americans, an energy measure, and various tax-related provisions.
"What, are we going to take our football and go home, just because they say they don't want to play ball?" asked Sen Claire McCaskill, D-Mo, as she departed an hours-long Democratic meeting in which the letter was discussed, adding, "Quit giving us ultimatums."
Republicans stood firm against any attempt to call up legislation not related to the Bush tax cuts, and at one point, Sen. John Barrasso, frustrated, actually read the GOP letter word for word for his Democratic colleagues, as Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-Ny, tried repeatedly to get the Wyoming Republican to object to an extension of tax rates for anyone making less than $1 million.
A number of Democratic senators took direct aim at Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz, as well, who is in negotiations on a tax cut compromise and is also currently the GOP point person on ratification of the New START Treaty. Kyl has concerns about the treaty and has said it is not likely to come up this year, a move that angered the White House and congressional Democrats.
"This treaty in particular deals with our national security," Sen. Tom Udall, D-NM, scolded Kyl, adding, "With this letter it looks like they're not going to be bipartisan. They're going to issue this ultimatum, and they're not going to work with us on these kinds of issues."
"There's nothing in the Republicans' letter that says anything on the START Treaty," Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., shot back in defense of Kyl, noting that Republicans are currently working with the White House on allaying GOP concerns about missile defense and other issues related to the treaty. "We're making sure that if the new START Treaty is approved, we're not left with a bunch of wet matches...I'm one Republican who is open to voting for the START Treaty."
McCaskill responded that she did not say START was in the letter, rather, Democrats, she said, were angered by a television interview Kyl gave in which he said he did not think there was any way to get START ratified if tax cuts and the CR were not handled by Monday of next week.
"I think I can speak for my colleagues on this side of the aisle. We're not done," McCaskill said. "Most of us are willing to stay here weekends, all night, Christmas Eve, the day after Christmas."
"It's obstruction. It's obfuscation. It's bringing the body to a halt. It's not right," said Sen Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif, who called the GOP use of the filibuster "almost diabolical."
Just another day in the U.S. Senate.