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Senate Turns to Legislating on Housing Bill

Months of escalating partisan tensions in the Senate began to ease last week as both parties backed away from the legislative standoff that has dominated the chamber this year.

Though Senate Democrats and Republicans remain deeply skeptical of one another, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) reached a rare deal to actually vote on amendments to a housing bill, and the measure appears on a path to completion with broad bipartisan support by midweek.

“I wouldn’t be too taken away with that,” Reid said on Thursday. “It’s only been for a couple of hours.”

Before Thursday’s votes on two amendments to the housing bill by Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.), it had been over a month since the Senate last voted on a legislative amendment to any bill. Instead of legislating, Democrats have been lobbing accusations of obstruction against the Republicans for preventing bills from coming up for debate, while the GOP has countered that Democrats will not allow them to offer amendments and have been slow to approve President Bush’s judicial nominees.

But this time, both sides agreed to keep amendments limited to those related to housing issues — at least for the day on Thursday.

“When we do things this way, the Senate can work,” Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) said. “When we do things the way that Sen. Reid has been doing it, it doesn’t work, and it’s apparent. It’s really a question of do you want to get something done or do you want to make a political point?”

Senate Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) said Democrats offered Republicans the same deal on germane amendments that they’ve always offered them, only this time, the GOP actually agreed to it.

“On other things, they have said, ‘We’re not going to move forward. We’re not going to debate the issues. We demand that we get our agenda to be voted on even if it’s totally irrelevant to the bill,’” Schumer said. “They’re not doing it here on housing, or they may not. … But at least it’s a little bit of progress.”

Indeed, Republicans did appear less rigid in accepting an agreement to offer only relevant amendments — a proposal they have rejected in the past because they have argued that Reid has attempted to cherry-pick which amendments the Senate will vote on.

Reid appeared to soften his stance as well. When conservative Republicans sought to hold up the bill in order to make political hay out of the controversy over Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Chairman Chris Dodd’s (D-Conn.) mortgage with Countrywide Financial, Reid gave them time to review the bill for favors to mortgage companies, rather than rejecting their objections as mere stalling tactics.

Reid also allowed those conservatives to have a vote on the issue, and his position was vindicated when their effort to send the bill back to committee was defeated 70-14, with five members voting present.

Both sides cautioned that the detente may be short-lived when it comes to other bills, and they indicated that the crisis of housing foreclosures in the country trumped partisanship for the time being.

“I think this was a bill where people came together because there is a problem, and I think people were feeling enough of a need to act that they put politics aside and said, ‘Let’s do something,’” Martinez said. “I don’t know if there’s any real moment of poetry here.”

Democrats agreed, but indicated that the political pressure is on the Republicans and not them.

“I don’t know how you sort this out, but I think the Republican stand in Congress is just as shaky as it could be here,” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said. He added, “By and large, I think they have come to a day of reckoning here.”

Of course, the germaneness agreement on the housing frayed a bit on Friday when Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) sought to offer an amendment to increase funding for low-income home heating assistance. It was unclear whether the amendment would actually come up for a vote.

But both Democrats and Republicans said the housing bill enjoys such broad bipartisan support that a few fights over non-germane amendments would not likely keep it from passing this week. “Wouldn’t it be great if we passed a bill around here — a substantive bill dealing with the real world?” Durbin quipped.

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