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Opinion: Welcome to S-Town

Congress should try fixing problems instead of creating them

Alabama Sen. Doug Jones won an election against an accused pedophile, only to find himself in the midst of Washington’s craziness, Murphy writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Alabama Sen. Doug Jones won an election against an accused pedophile, only to find himself in the midst of Washington’s craziness, Murphy writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

You have to wonder what’s going through newly elected Sen. Doug Jones’ mind as he experiences his second full week in the Senate. Can you imagine winning an election against an accused pedophile, only to arrive in the one square mile of America that is crazier than the circumstances that brought you here?

What about Sen. Tina Smith, who replaced Al Franken after he voluntarily resigned for sexual harassment he said he mostly never committed?  Congress made even less sense on Tuesday, when the prevailing debate among senators was not about Korea or nuclear war or the economy or education, but over whether President Donald Trump had called Haiti and all of Africa a “shithole” or a “shithouse” in a meeting with senators last week.

Either way, Sens. Jones and Smith, welcome to S-Town, a place that has become obsessed with the avoidably urgent at the expense of the truly important in a way that may be difficult to reverse.

If the fight over what the president said was the only sign of dysfunction in Washington, that might be acceptable. Different people remember the same event differently all the time. But the vitriol that has followed among senators, especially David Perdue’s accusation this weekend that Dick Durbin was lying about the events at the White House, felt like a new low that won’t soon let go.

And up is down …

Durbin responded to the charges Monday, saying that Perdue and Sen. Tom Cotton were wrong about their defense of the president “and they know they’re wrong.” A day later, Cotton fired back in a gaggle with reporters. “Let me be clear, I stand by every word I said. The difference is, I’m right.”

As the back and forth continued on Capitol Hill, negotiations over government funding seemed to be breaking down, inching the country closer toward a Friday government shutdown. Although Democrats have insisted on a package for undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers, that was nowhere in the plan floated Tuesday night.

Instead, the bill would keep the government open through Feb. 16, extend the Children’s Health Insurance Program for six years, and delay some Obamacare taxes that also help pay for the health insurance program.

Even with DACA language excluded from the package, the Freedom Caucus is refusing to go along with the bill. As of midweek, Republicans didn’t have the votes on their own in the House, and they were still struggling to get any path to 60 in the Senate.

A compromise before the Friday deadline is still possible, but pessimism is creeping into S-Town.

The shame of this week in Washington is that it was all so avoidable. The expiration of the CR was a well-known date certain, and the back-and-forth among senators was completely elective. Several people from the meeting at the White House are lying and going out of their way to accuse their fellow senators of the same. These crises are urgent, but self-inflicted.

Unfortunately, they have also lost an opportunity. There remains just 24 hours in a day and in a news cycle. Negotiating a short-term spending deal takes time away from negotiating a long-term spending deal. Fighting over which phrase the president used, when all variations of it are essentially the same, robs Congress’ attention from the real crises facing the nation.

Let’s tick through just a few that have popped up since the s-show at the White House last week:

  • The New York Times reported over the weekend that the Pentagon is reluctantly making preparations for war with North Korea, including exercises in Nevada meant to simulate a foreign invasion.
  • On Saturday, Hawaiians lived through every person’s nightmare — an accidental warning on their phones of an inbound missile attack that was not corrected for more than 45 minutes. The state was already on high enough alert that it had reinstated monthly Cold War-era nuclear siren tests at the end of last year.
  • On Tuesday, Gallup released data that showed the ranks of the uninsured swelled by 3.2 million people in 2017.
  • The parents of 9 million children who get health care through CHIP funding were told to prepare for possible gaps in their children’s coverage, since Congress still has no long-term funding plan.
  • The staffs of the House and Senate continued to work in offices with almost no workplace protections.

The toxic turn of events has even obscured the work that is getting done in Congress. Committee schedules are full. Nominations and legislation are moving, including the FISA reauthorization bill that the president attacked on Twitter before Speaker Paul D. Ryan apparently explained it to him more fully. But even those functions will come to a halt if the government shuts down on Friday or relationships between members become so diseased they can no longer be productive.

Really make America great

When Sen. Lindsey Graham coined the phrase “an s-show” during a Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday, he added, “We need to get back to being a great country.”

Watch: Leahy Questions Nielsen About Trump Comment

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We also need to get back to having a great legislature that is capable of solving the country’s problems and not creating them in the first place.

Maybe it will help to have a few fresh recruits in the form of Sens. Smith and Jones? Even the s-show takes a while to damage a person’s optimism, which Jones was still holding close at an event to honor Martin Luther King Jr. in Alabama on Monday.

He told the crowd, “Do not forget one second, whenever you hear that divisive rhetoric, no matter who it comes from, that because of our diversity and because of our differences, every time we faced what felt like insurmountable difficulties, we have risen to the occasion to confront that on. And make no mistake: We will do it again.”

Here’s hoping.

Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.

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