Passage of the $410 billion, leftover-from-last-year omnibus spending bill was supposed to be a perfunctory, pro forma task. Instead, it's become a congressional CT scan, diagnosing some serious maladies afflicting Senate Democrats and complicating House-Senate relations.
The Senate stalled on the omnibus Thursday night when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) came up short of the 60 votes he needed to move the bill forward.
That led to an "ugly" late-night, closed-door meeting between Reid, Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) - aides in the hall heard yelling and swearing - and it has fanned House Democrats' anger over Reid's inability to move bills without granting major concessions to marginal members of both parties.
"We're always frustrated with the Senate," House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) said Friday. The rejoinder from Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), a suddenly powerful centrist who helped strip the House stimulus bill of billions: "I've said all along, the House needs to learn how to count the votes in the Senate." Reid's own vote count came up short Thursday night.
The Nevada Democrat was forced to delay a pivotal vote on the measure after Democrats and moderate Republicans raised last-minute concerns - despite the fact that Reid previously believed he had the 60 votes needed to invoke cloture.
The most stinging defection: Reid's own senatorial campaign committee chairman, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J), who told Democratic leaders that he'd be voting "no" over his objections to the House bill's easing of the embargo against Cuba.
"Something that's being learned here is that having 58 votes can in some ways be a little trickier going than the breakdown we had last Congress, because it makes the marginal votes so important that it empowers people," a Senate Democratic aide remarked after the humiliation.
Pelosi was reportedly so furious at the Senate's slow-walk on the omnibus that she initially rejected any new changes to the bill, saying the House would substitute a stop-gap resolution stripping the omnibus of earmarks and freezing government spending at current levels until the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1.
In the end, Pelosi withdrew the proposal after Reid assured her Senate Democrats had enough votes to reject a series of GOP amendments Monday.
If that deal holds - and it's always possible it won't - it would be a victory for Pelosi, who wanted the House bill approved without changes.
For his part, Reid dismissed the idea of a rift, saying his miscalculation has less to do with his grip on Democrats than it does with the traditional role of the upper chamber.
"The House, they run every two years," Reid said during a floor speech Friday. "Their ears are in tune to the constituency like no one else. ... We ... are the saucer that cools the coffee. And sometimes, we cool it for a long period of time."
Still, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) told POLITICO he thought Reid was "beside himself" about the Thursday night debacle.
Asked if he was frustrated with the Senate, Hoyer said: "The Senate is frustrated with the Senate. There is a high degree of irresponsibility being exercised over there when the responsibility is that we have to fund the government."
Princeton historian Julian Zelizer said these early skirmishes portend "extraordinary difficult" battles ahead. If Hill Democrats are having trouble when they're at their zenith, basking in the reflected glory of President Barack Obama's high approval numbers, how will they do when it comes for the president's epochal $3.7 trillion budget, the health careoverhaul and the looming partisan showdown over the Employee Free Choice Act?
Democrats "were really playing defense before 2008. Now they are both trying to move an agenda forward, and they're also responsible for the failures now," Zelizer said.
Added a veteran of Clinton White House wars with the Hill: "This is going to be the biggest source of conflict. ... The House [could] wake up in the morning and discover they have to defer to the Senate again." The divisions among Democrats have helped the GOP score a series of tactical victories by turning debates on the stimulus package and the pending omnibus spending bill into fights about pork barrel projects.
The five-day stall also allowed Republicans to keep the issue alive through the weekend - giving them a free shot at Democrats on the Sunday talk shows. Republican Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) took it, using an appearance on CNN's "State of the Union" Sunday to say that the earmarks in the omnibus are proof that Obama is breaking his campaign promises.
Yet so far these small-bore wins aren't translating to greater popularity for the GOP. A Daily Kos/Research 2000 weekly tracking poll has Americans evenly split on how congressional Democrats are doing - 46 percent have a favorable view, 45 percent have an unfavorable view. Only 17 percent had a favorable view of congressional Republicans, while 68 percent said they did not.
Reid's stumble on the omnibus may have had less to do with any intra-party schisms than it does with the omnibus itself, an unloved Bush-era leftover upon which Obama has expended little political capital.
"Failing to pass a stimulus bill was not an option; failing to pass the omnibus is an option," said Sarah Binder, a Brookings Institution senior fellow who studies Congress.
"I think these problems are endemic in Congress - even in a period of unified party control. Party control just isn't a magic bullet so long as Senate rules empower the minority and so long as Republicans are willing to exploit chamber rules as they seek to rebuild their brand name."
Several Senate Republicans have always been on board with the omnibus - a very different situation than the one presented by the stimulus, where each of the three GOP "yes" votes was a cliffhanger.
Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), the minority whip, cast his party's opposition to the omnibus as an attempt to amend, rather than kill the package.
"Republicans are in the minority and we don't have a lot of power, but one thing we do have the ability to do is to ensure that our members are treated fairly," he said last week.
"When there's a sense that we are not being treated fairly, we will unite ... until we get our amendments done. That's only fair, and our members will stick together to make sure that's the case."
Reid took to the floor Thursday around 8:15 p.m., believing he had the votes, but Kyl knew that Democrats were at least one vote shy of 60.
"Counting votes is always a difficult thing," Kyl said. "I knew that they didn't have the votes - they didn't come to realize that till fairly close to the vote." Reid's big mistake, aides say, was assuming that moderate Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) would vote to end the debate - when she had already sided with the GOP leadership over the delay.
Reid said later that no one lied to him - but a top Democratic Senate aide wasn't so sure, saying that the Republicans were "trying to embarrass" Reid and the Democrats.
Patrick O'Connor contributed to this story.
By Glenn Thrush and Manu Raju