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Public Statements

A Gridlocked Congress

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC


Mr. SPECTER. Mainstream Americans must march to the polls this November to express themselves forcefully to stop extremists financed by undisclosed contributors from stifling our democracy. The Congress is gridlocked, leaving the Nation's business floundering. Fringe candidates with highly questionable competency are winning primary elections. Moderates and some conservatives are falling because they fail the test of ideological purity.

In the past 10 years, both parties have taken advantage of procedural rules-gimmicks to thwart needed congressional action. During the administration of President George W. Bush, Democrats mounted so many filibusters against judicial nominations that the Senate was on the verge of changing an important rule requiring 60 votes to cut off debate. During the Obama administration, Republicans have exceeded the prior extremism of Democrats on filibusters. In addition, the leaders of both parties have abused procedural rules to stop Senators from offering important, germane amendments to pending legislation in a Chamber where the tradition had allowed any Senator to offer virtually any amendment on any bill to get a vote to focus public attention on important national issues.

The partisanship has reached such a high level and comity such a low level that there is not even the pretense of negotiation or compromise in almost all situations. Within days of the start of the Obama administration, literally before the ink was dry on his oath of office, Republicans openly bragged about plans to ``break'' him and to engineer his ``Waterloo.'' Announcing that ideological purity was more important than obtaining a majority, the prevailing Republican motto was: We would rather have 30 Marco Rubios in the Senate than 50 Arlen Specters.

Moderates and some conservatives, too, have fallen like flies at the hands of extremists in both parties. Senator Robert Bennett's 39 percent conservative rating was insufficient for renomination in Utah. Senator Lisa Murkowski was rejected by Alaska's tea party's dominance in their Republican primary. In perhaps the most stunning election, an opponent whom conservative Republicans characterized as incompetent beat Congressman Mike Castle. These elections were presaged by the surprising defeat of Senator Joe Lieberman, who was not sufficiently liberal to represent Connecticut's Democrats.

The Senate is a vastly different place than it was when I was elected in 1980. In that era, Howard Baker and Lloyd Bentsen worked together. Bob Dole and Russell Long could reach an accommodation on tax issues. Bill Cohen and ``Scoop'' Jackson found compromises in the Armed Services Committee. The Nunn-Lugar initiatives were legendary. Dan Inouye and Ted Stevens perfected bipartisanship on the Appropriations Committee.

I think it is fair and accurate to say that the Republican Party has changed the most ideologically from the days when the steering committee, led by Senator Jesse Helms, represented the conservatives and the Wednesday moderate luncheon club was almost as big, with Mark Hatfield, ``Mac'' Mathias, Lowell Weicker, John Danforth, Charles Percy, Bob Stafford, John Heinz, John Chafee, Bob Packwood, Alan Simpson, John Warner, Warren Rudman, Slade Gorton, and Arlen Specter, in addition to Baker, Dole, Stevens, and Cohen. By the turn of the century, the group had shrunk to Jim Jeffords, Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, Lincoln Chafee, and me. After the 2008 election, only Snowe, Collins, and I remained.

By the fall of 2008, the economy was in free fall. More than half a million jobs were being lost each month, and the unemployment rolls were nearing 4 million. President Bush formulated a $750 billion so-called bailout called TARP, the Troubled Asset Relief Program. Resistance to the proposal was high. The House of Representatives rejected it on September 29 by a vote of 228 to 205. The stock market fell 778 points on the Dow Jones average. Nothing could be done immediately since many in Congress--myself included--were in synagogues across the country celebrating Rosh Hashanah on that evening and the next day. The Senate came back into session on October 1 to vote on TARP.

Vice President Cheney met with the Republican caucus to urge acceptance of the President's plan. Dick Cheney had an earned reputation for being a dry, factual, unemotional speaker, low key, direct, here it is, take it or leave it.

Before the Senate vote, in the Senate Mansfield Room, immediately off this Chamber, the Vice President was impassioned. He said if you don't pass
this legislation, George W. Bush will turn into a modern day Herbert Hoover.

Republicans responded with 34 voting aye and 15 opposed. TARP passed the Senate 75 to 24. The House followed suit, and the President signed the bill. It wasn't a pretty legislative process. It started out with a few pages, mushroomed into a gigantic bill, without appropriate hearings, analysis, debate or deliberation. Fast action was mandatory if we were to stop the market slide and the economy from crashing. The implications were worldwide.

The situation continued to deteriorate. President Obama immediately went to work on a stimulus bill. He came to the Republican Caucus on January 27, and made a very strong appeal on the urgency of immediate action to save the U.S. economy from a 1929-type depression with a domino effect on the world economy. He said it was imperative that the bill be passed by February 13, the Friday before Congress began a weeklong recess for the Washington/Lincoln birthdays.

A large group of Senators held a series of meetings attended by about 15 rotating Democrats with 6 Republicans initially in attendance: Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, George Voinovich, Lisa Murkowski, Mel Martinez, and me. The final meetings were held on February 6 in HARRY REID's office, attended by Susan Collins, Ben Nelson, Joe Lieberman, Rahm Emanuel, Reid, and me. Collins and I insisted on having a final bill under $800 billion. The Obama figure had started out at $600 billion and ballooned to more than a trillion dollars. She and I thought it would be tough for the public to swallow a stimulus act so we insisted on holding the figure under $800 billion. When she and I couldn't agree with the Democrats, we took a break and went to my hideaway office to confer. There we formulated our last best proposal, which was accepted.

The stimulus package, like TARP, was put together too fast without appropriate hearings, analysis, debate, and deliberation. Had the Republican leadership participated, there would have been critical staff assistance on formulating what the money should have been spent for to stimulate the economy immediately and create jobs, but the Republican leadership refused to participate. The Republican game plan was already in effect to ``break'' Obama and cause his ``Waterloo.''

There were many Republicans in the caucus who would have liked to have voted for the stimulus. The U.S. and world economies were closer to the precipice of depression than when 34 Senators had voted for TARP. But the pressure to vote the party line was tremendous--the strongest I had seen in my 29-year tenure. The risk of retribution was enormous.

After making my floor speech supporting the President's plan, I walked back into the Republican cloakroom where a senior colleague said: ``ARLEN, I'm proud of you.'' When I then asked him: ``Will you join with me?'' he replied: ``No, I couldn't do that. Might cost me a primary.'' While there has been much justified criticism that the stimulus legislation could have been better, most would agree that it did prevent a 1929-style depression.

Not interested in governance, after the stimulus vote, Republicans turned to obstructionism--a virtual scorched-earth policy to carry out the plan to defeat the President. In 2009 and 2010 to date, 112 cloture motions have been filed and voted on 67 times. That the filibusters were frivolous, dilatory, and obstructionistic is evidenced by the fact that some judges were confirmed by overwhelming majorities, some 99 to 0, after cloture was invoked.

Each time cloture was invoked, the Senate could not take up any other business for 30 hours, leaving little time to take up other vital legislation.

On some occasions, relatively rare, the filibusters were justified where the majority leader filled the so-called tree, precluding minority amendments. That sometimes led to half-hearted negotiations over how many and what amendments the minority could offer, resulting in reciprocal recriminations of unfairness. Often the recriminations were meritorious with both parties being to blame. Each side maneuvered to avoid voting on amendments which posed political risks to their side. Notwithstanding the fact that Senators are sent to Washington to vote, enormous energy is expended to avoid votes. This issue did not apply to judicial confirmations where no amendments were in order. In 2008, I proposed a rule change to establish a timetable for confirming judges precluding filibusters. In 2009, I proposed a rule change to prohibit filling the so-called tree to prevent other Senators from offering amendments.

The exodus of Senate Republican moderates has resulted from the shift of the party to the right causing many moderates to reregister as Independents or Democrats, significant expenditures by the Club for Growth, the activism of the tea party, and, more recently, the infusion of enormous sums of money from secret contributors. Extreme right-wing candidates have benefited from enormous campaign expenditures by outside groups. The New York Times recently reported that ``outside groups supporting Republican candidates in House and Senate races ..... have been swamping their Democratic-leaning counterparts on television .....'' Bloomberg News reports that, in September alone, groups supporting Republican candidates spent $17 million while groups supporting Democratic candidates spent only $2.6 million.

The Club for Growth's backing of Lincoln Chafee's primary opponent in Rhode Island in 2006 was especially costly causing his defeat in the general by draining his financing and pushing him to the right. It cost Republicans control of the Senate in 2007 and 2008. When the Club for Growth defeated moderates in the primaries, Pete Domenici's seat was lost in 2008, as were the House seats of Joe Schwartz in Michigan in 2006 and Wayne Gilchrist in Maryland in 2008.

It is understandable that moderates are responding to caucus pressure, seeing what is happening to colleagues who are seen as ideologically impure and insufficiently conservative. Bob Bennett had a 93 percent conservative rating. Only two objections were raised against him: he sponsored health care reform legislation which was cosponsored by many other Republicans, and he voted for TARP. As noted, TARP was President Bush's legislation, enthusiastically advocated by Vice President Cheney. It was a significant success, stabilizing the banking industry and enabling GM and Chrysler to stay in business. Most of the government funds have been repaid.

South Carolina Congressman Bob Inglis, who was defeated earlier this year by a conservative primary challenger, said today's political climate would make it ``a tough time for Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp.'' Florida Governor Charlie Crist was driven out of the Republican Party to an Independent candidacy because his State accepted stimulus money. He was pictured embracing President Obama and he was thought to be too liberal. Considering what has happened to Bennett, Murkowski, Castle, and Crist, is no wonder that Republican Senate moderates and some conservatives are hewing the party line as they watch right wingers plan for their primary defeats years away.

Republican Senators who previously actively supported campaign finance reform were unwilling to cast a single vote with 59 Democrats to proceed to consider legislation requiring the disclosure of corporate contributions permitted by the Supreme Court decision in Citizen's United. Notwithstanding the broad latitude given to campaign contributions under the first amendment, the Supreme Court rulings leave Congress the authority to require disclosure. It is hard to understand how any objective view would oppose disclosure when secret contributions pose such a threat to our democracy.

The ACTING PRESIDENT pro tempore. The Senator has now used his additional 15 minutes of time.

Mr. SPECTER. Madam President, I ask unanimous consent for 2 additional minutes.

The ACTING PRESIDENT pro tempore. The Senator from Texas.

Mrs. HUTCHISON. Madam President, I have been waiting now to speak on Ted Stevens, which was, I thought, the time allotted here. I am happy to give the Senator another 2 minutes on top of the extra 15 if that is necessary, but we have several Members wishing to speak on Senator Stevens. If he would hold it to another 2 minutes.

Mr. SPECTER. Well, I asked for the time when no one was here. I do ask for the additional 2 minutes.

The ACTING PRESIDENT pro tempore. Is there objection?

The Senator from Utah.

Mr. BENNETT. Madam President, reserving the right to object, and I shall not, I ask unanimous consent that following Senator Specter, I be recognized for 5 minutes, Senator Hutchison be recognized for 5 minutes, Senator Collins for 10 minutes, Senator Alexander for 5 minutes, and Senator Isakson for 5 minutes, thus locking in the time we understood we were going to get.

The ACTING PRESIDENT pro tempore. Without objection, both requests are granted.

Mr. SPECTER. To continue the chain of thought, like the issue on campaign contributions, the DOD authorization bill was stymied on the excuse of ``procedural'' considerations involving ``don't ask, don't tell,' when many Republicans had voted to repeal it on prior occasions.

This country is still governed by ``we the people,'' but the only people who count are the ones who vote. If mainstream Republicans had been as active tea party Republicans in the Utah, Alaska, and Delaware primaries, I believe Bennett, Murkowski, and Castle would have won. That would have given heart to other Republican Senators that their records would be judged by a sufficiently large base to give them a fighting chance to survive.

Politics is routinely described as the art of the possible or the art of compromise. The viability of the two-party system is predicated on advocacy of differing approaches to governance which ultimately seeks middle ground or compromise. That is virtually always indispensible to reach a supermajority of 60. When one party insists on ideological purity, compromise is thwarted and the two-party system fails to function.

People with grievances are the most anxious to shake up the system. The Congress needs to deal with issues such as the deficit, the national debt, and the intrusiveness of government. The tea party people who attended townhall meetings in August of 2009, like mine in Lebanon, were not Astro Turf, but citizens making important points. But they did not represent all of America or, in my opinion, even a majority of Republicans. Pundits are saying this November our Nation will be at the crossroads. I believe it is more like a clover leaf. If activated and motivated to vote, mainstream voters can steer America to sensible centrism.

Madam President, I thank my colleagues for their forbearance.

I yield the floor.


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