There is a timeworn saying in Washington that even in the most difficult negotiations, congressmen will always strike a deal once they hear planes taking off from Reagan National Airport for the weekend.
That didn't work last week on Capitol Hill, as the Senate grappled with how to keep student loan interest rates from doubling, affecting 7.4 million students.
In fact, nothing worked. Even by Washington standards, it was a frustrating week. After a week-and-a-half-long recess, the Senate on Tuesday voted against a Democratic bill that would keep the interest rates at the current 3.4 percent level by closing tax loopholes for wealthy taxpayers and corporations.
But senators didn't just vote down the bill - they couldn't even agree to hold a vote on it. The 52-45 vote was on a procedural motion and fell eight votes short of the 60 that is necessary to move forward and hold a vote on the bill.
On a mostly party line vote, the Republican-controlled House had already approved a bill in late April to keep the rates steady.
That brought a particular irony to the Capitol. Both Democrats and Republicans agreed the rates should remain low - President Obama and presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney also agree on the idea - but the two parties disagree on how to pay the $5.9 billion cost.
Action is needed before July 1st to prevent a rate hike to 6.8 percent, costing each student about $1,000 per year. But the differences are stark.
House and Senate Republicans want to use a preventative health care fund in the 2010 health care law to pay for keeping the 3.4 percent rate steady, while Democrats want to preserve the child immunizations, screenings and mammograms provided by that fund and pay for the bill by closing tax loopholes instead.
"Over the last two weeks, Senate Republicans have repeatedly claimed they support efforts to keep interest rates low for federal student loans. There is only one way to prove it: end the needless filibuster of Democrats' plan to stop rates from doubling this summer," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
He added, "Our plan creates no new taxes. It would simply stop wealthy Americans from avoiding the taxes they already owe... Republicans want to ax investments in preventive care that save the country money and save lives."
Republicans, for their part, accused Democrats and President Obama of simply playing politics by courting the youth vote for November - "a cynical election-year strategy," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. said negotiators from the two parties haven't even sat down to talk and work out their differences.
"That is the normal, regular way to deal with something like this," Rubio said. "That is not what has happened here. Why not? Why have smart, well-educated people that serve in this chamber not met to discuss this? Because it's not really that complicated."
There were signs last week that the exasperation expressed by several senators on the chamber floor was more unusual than most partisan disagreements.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, called for an idea he first proposed in 1995 - when Democrats were in the Senate minority - that would prevent abuse of the filibuster.
Several Democrats joined Harkin's call for changing Senate rules, including requiring senators to actually be present on the chamber floor when filibustering a bill. Currently, senators can block any bill on a procedural motion remotely, allowing them to stay in their offices and avoid questions.
Harkin said the Senate's dysfunction is the worst he has seen it since his election in 1984.
"I warned at the time that if we didn't change (filibuster rules), it would get worse. And believe me, it's gotten worse," Harkin said on Thursday. "When you filibuster, it becomes totally dysfunctional."
He added, "The way to go forward is for Republicans to quit their obstruction. You can't say both sides are to blame. No, I'm sorry. The Republicans are to blame. People have to understand what obstructionism is around here."
Like Harkin, several senators said the only solution is to change the chamber's rules to allow legislation to be passed with a simple majority of 51 votes - such as how the 2010 health care law was passed.
If Democrats keep control of the Senate after the November elections, they could change the rules at the beginning of the next Congress in January.
"Our current rules have made the Senate the graveyard of good ideas," said Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M.
The latest polling average compiled by the political Web site RealClearPolitics shows Congress has a job-approval rating of 13.8 percent.
by RTT Staff Writer
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