WASHINGTON – No, the word “Senate” is not Latin for “It's never easy.” But sometimes it seems that way.
The House easily approved two bills last Tuesday with broad bipartisan support. There's no doubt Senate approval is inevitable, sooner rather than later.
But each is encountering problems — for now, let’s call them speed bumps — in a chamber designed to do exactly that, to the chagrin of supporters of whatever legislation gets ensnared in the chamber's procedural netherworld.
One measure would relieve much of the financially strapped Postal Service’s huge debt. T he other would avoid a government shutdown this weekend.
Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., has threatened to delay the measure preventing a shutdown amid an outcry by conservative lawmakers and media opposing a federal program they say would buy crack pipes for drug abusers.
That allegation is bogus, Democrats say. A Blackburn spokesman said Monday she would drop her objections if she received a promise in writing that taxpayers' money wouldn't be spent on the pipes.
Separately, Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., blocked an initial vote Monday on the Postal Service bill, saying it needed to be reworked. He said it would “add more stress on our already enormous national debt with poor financial planning" and merely shift debt to Medicare, which has its own solvency problems.
“There is no looming deadline that will necessitate rushed action by the Senate," Scott said. The delay likely meant the Senate won’t approve the bill until after next week’s scheduled recess.
Scott said his roadblock won’t hurt the Postal Service. The measure's supporters said it would damage the service and reaffirm voters' healthy dismay for Congress.
“What we heard is why people really are frustrated, angered at the United States Senate,” said Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. He accused Scott of using “a technical detail“ to delay a bipartisan measure and lamented that “the arcane rules of the Senate allow one person to stand up" and delay widely supported legislation.
Senate bills have long faced delays, with reason. According to an apocryphal story on the Senate webpage, George Washington may have told Thomas Jefferson that the Founding Fathers designed the Senate to “cool” House bills, like saucers can be used to cool hot tea.
All 100 senators must all agree to let the chamber begin debating legislation and vote on it. That usually happens quickly and routinely for broadly supported bills.
Except when it doesn't. That can occur when senators of either party want to use the resulting delay to focus attention on an issue, or on themselves.
The Postal Service bill already encountered an embarrassing hitch as it traveled the several hundred feet across the Capitol from the House to the Senate. House staff mistakenly sent an earlier version of the legislation that omitted a last-minute amendment.
Schumer last week unwittingly scheduled a Monday evening vote limiting the time for debating the incomplete postal bill. Scott blocked the unanimous consent Schumer needed to change that to a vote on the full legislation.
“Let’s help the American people and let’s show that the United States Senate knows how to get a job done," said Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., an author of the postal measure.
Earlier Monday, Peters told reporters he'd had reached out to Scott but hadn't learned why he was threatening the holdup. “I hope folks are not intent on hurting the Postal Service,” he said.
The bill would end a requirement that the Postal Service finance retirees' health benefits for 75 years in advance, which has driven it tens of billions of dollars into debt. It would also require it to continue deliveries six days weekly and issue data, by zip code, on how quickly mail is delivered.
The separate, short-term spending bill would keep government operating through March 11. It's aimed at giving bargainers time to complete legislation financing agencies through the rest of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
Blackburn has been objecting to a $30 million federal program that issues grants to help drug addicts avoid further health risks. She said last week that the money should not be used to “fund vending machines for crack pipes." Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Tom Cotton, R-Ark., made similar complaints.
The government issued guidelines last week that said costs could be covered for equipment including “Safe smoking kits/supplies." But the Biden administration said the program would not cover safe pipes for smoking crack or methamphetamine. Covered items include drugs to prevent overdoses and containers for disposing syringes.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said last week that pipes “were never a part of the kit” and blamed the uproar on “inaccurate reporting.”
Supporters say harm reduction programs help troubled people avoid even worse problems. Critics say they encourage illicit drug use.
The latest short-term bill expires at midnight Friday. An election-year shutdown would serve neither party's political interests, and an agreement to approve the measure is expected.