Crying “obstructionism” is a tradition for Senate majority leaders, and Harry Reid does it as frequently and piously as anyone. But Reid, with the cooperation of a news media confused by the upper chamber's rules, has defined “obstructionism” down, and this week is blaming conservative Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., for blocking a bill even though Reid hasn't even tried to move it yet.
Food safety legislation sponsored by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., would give the Food and Drug Administration sweeping new powers, and thus has spurred fierce opposition from small farmers and local produce advocates, while big food producers support the measure. Coburn has expressed concerns about burdens on small business and the bill's cost to taxpayers. He's also argued that the bill multiplies regulatory redundancies and complexity, thus harming effective enforcement.
The House passed a similar bill last year, and if the Senate doesn't pass a bill this year, the process would have to start over again.
The Democratic leadership's line — swallowed whole by much of the media — is that the Senate could easily pass this bill, but Coburn, a notorious gadfly, is holding it up.
“We thought we finally had it worked out,” Reid said on the Senate floor. “We could take care of this, but Senator Coburn has said no.”
Sen. Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate health committee sounded the same note on a conference call: “It's a shame that one person — one person — can stop it.” Media coverage dutifully describes Coburn as “holding” the bill.
But Coburn isn't blocking the food safety bill, because Reid hasn't actually tried to move the bill to the floor. Reid's rhetoric is simply the next step in his election-year effort to expand the definition of “obstruction” to mean anything other than rolling over for the majority.
Contrary to Reid's standard spin, a single senator cannot indefinitely delay a vote on a bill. A one-man filibuster lasts only as long as the senator can hold the floor — think “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
Short of that, a single senator can only force debate — by objecting, from the floor, to a unanimous-consent agreement to expedite a vote. A “hold” is a way parties leverage UC rules: As a courtesy, if one senator tells his party leader he would object, any senator in that party will object if he happens to be on the floor. While Sen. Coburn frequently employs holds, even this gets misrepresented — a hold can't kill a bill or a nomination, but it can force a debate and a cloture vote.
But on food safety, Coburn hasn't imposed a hold, because as of the end of the week there was no unanimous consent agreement for him to object to. “We absolutely have not gotten a unanimous consent request,” Don Stewart, spokesman for Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, told me.
Stewart argued, “The holdup on this bill has been Senator Feinstein.” Dianne Feinstein has been pushing an amendment to ban or nearly ban the chemical BPA in plastic drinking bottles. The big food lobbies — including the Grocery Manufacturers of America and the National Restaurant Association — are all lobbying hard in favor of the bill, but the BPA ban would kill their support. Feinstein's office couldn't tell me if her provision was in the bill, or if there would be an up-or-down vote on her amendment.
So, Reid had apparently not determined what the bill would include or what amendments will get floor votes. Or if he had, he hasn't told any Republicans. It looks like Reid doesn't have his act together, and he's blaming Coburn.
Reid accused Coburn of raising his objections “at the last minute,” but that's false, too. Coburn staff had e-mailed Democratic bill authors in March with a detailed list of objections.
But this is Reid's mode of operation: Mischaracterize the legislative process to make Republicans look unreasonable, and hope the media doesn't check the facts. President Obama pulled the same trick over the summer when he blamed Republican obstructionism for forcing him to give the controversial Donald Berwick a recess appointment to oversee Medicare and Medicaid. The Democrat-controlled Finance Committee had never even scheduled a confirmation hearing for him.
When one party controls the House, Senate, and White House, it begins to run out of people to blame for its problems. Coburn makes a handy foil.
Timothy P.Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on ExaminerPolitics.com.