Today's Paper Latest The Article Core Values iPad Story ideas Weather Newsletters Obits Puzzles Archive

OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Partisanship spoils stew

by John Brummett | June 2, 2021 at 2:59 a.m.

Today's story demonstrates the frustration and likely futility of efforts for a bipartisan solution on a big issue in the U.S. Senate.

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine touts herself as the likeliest bipartisan force in the Republican caucus, though many Democrats have come to think of her as one making nice noises about bipartisanship and then voting strictly party-line.

That's not always been true, and apparently it wasn't true late in the debate Friday over a bipartisan commission to investigate the insurrection on Jan. 6.

Her eleventh-hour efforts seemed genuine and vigorous. She sought to persuade four more Republican senators to vote to avoid filibuster and allow an up-or-down vote. That would have produced 10 GOP senators willing to cross Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, compiling 60 votes to blow through a filibuster and pass the bill establishing the commission.

Collins' last best effort was to get Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to commit to an amendment later that would allow the ranking Democrat and ranking Republican on the 10-member commission, with five members from each party, to appoint separate staffs if they could not agree on one staff. Collins had heard the complaint among Republican senators that they didn't trust the objectivity and political neutrality of a staff the Democratic chairman could appoint with mere Republican consultation under the bill as proposed.

Collins asked Schumer, whom she does not like on account of the Democratic senatorial committee's high-dollar attacks on her re-election last year, to express his personal commitment on that to Republican U.S. Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio. Schumer made that personal commitment to Portman, whom Collins believed would vote right with that assurance since he is not running for re-election and needn't worry about Trumpian primary opposition.

But then Schumer spoke from the Senate floor and devoted his remarks to blasting Republicans for opposing the measure to try to protect Donald Trump and the "big lie" of an election stolen from him. As far as Schumer knew, Portman would have provided only the seventh GOP vote, not the vital 10th, to move to consider the bill. Even at that, Schumer had two Democrats missing. Patty Murray of Washington had a pressing family conflict and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona was inexplicably absent despite her statement two days before that it was "critical" to pass the bill. Her staff subsequently declined to explain the absence but emphasized that she would be adding to the Congressional Record her intention to vote for the commission.

Facing what he saw as certain defeat, and viewing most Republicans as intractable no matter what he conceded, Schumer used his floor time to advance Democratic partisan interest on the assumption of Republican obstruction. Democratic strategists had been thinking for days that they could exploit Republicans filibustering to oppose the commission. Most Democrats wanted the commission, we can safely assume, but there were points to be scored if the Republicans blocked it and revealed themselves to be afraid of it.

After Schumer spoke to assail Republicans' fearful obstruction, Collins went to Schumer and, there on the floor, with a Politico reporter picking up an occasional word, angrily told him she found it unbelievable that he had just made that speech for purely partisan purposes without making clear to the entire body that he and Democrats would accept the staff-selection amendment he had told Collins and Portman he would accept.

Collins apparently believed such a public promise from the floor might have brought along other Republican senators. Even if it didn't, she felt it would represent a sincere and noble attempt to set up the commission rather than spout exploitative partisan rhetoric pre-emptively declaring defeat.

She wanted the majority leader's floor speech to acknowledge the organic nature of negotiations on the floor. But Schumer, probably advised by consultants, didn't want to waste the moment's opportunity for broadsides on Republicans, whom he was certain would block the commission.

For that matter, there remain ways to investigate the events of Jan. 6 absent a bipartisan commission created by congressional act. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will probably now appoint a special select committee. And the Justice Department exists for the precise purpose of investigation and prosecution and has indicted scores of people.

But, in the end, we mostly had another good example of a would-be compromiser getting run-over in the middle of the road.

Six Republican senators ended up voting for the commission. Portman might have made the seventh if Schumer had made a public commitment on the staffing process. The two absent Democratic senators might have been rounded up or waited for if really needed. That would have made 57 votes, needing 60 to avoid filibuster and move to simple passage.

Collins wanted Schumer to join her in a public effort to make a good-faith attempt to get three more Republican votes. She couldn't promise them. She just wanted to try for them.

Schumer didn't think she could get them, or that Republicans as a group could be trusted. He believed his floor time would be better spent advancing the Democrats' perceived political advantage from that.

As usual, bipartisan distrust and strategic interest prevailed over a good-faith bipartisan effort. And, to be clear, that applied to both sides.

While Democrats saw advantages in defeat, the Republican leadership calculated that the cost of enduring the findings of a bipartisan investigation would be greater in the midterms than the cost of enduring Democratic exploitation of the Republicans' unwillingness to investigate.

Republicans can trash anything Nancy Pelosi sets up or that the Biden Justice Department does. They couldn't have easily trashed the findings of a commission that 10 Republican senators went along with.

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.


Sponsor Content