After the worst oil leak in U.S. history and months of heated negotiations on energy and spill-response legislation, senators will head home for the August recess empty-handed.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he plans to bring back the spill bill or a broader measure in September, but even narrowed legislation may not pass with a cluttered legislative calendar and the November elections looming.
And the political fallout of inaction may cut against both parties, said Norm Ornstein, a congressional expert at the American Enterprise Institute.
“It’s a hell of a way to try to gain some political traction to let people suffer just so you can show that nothing’s getting done,” Ornstein said.
Senate Democrats began the year with ambitious plans to pass a sweeping climate and energy bill similar to the package that cleared the House last summer, but those plans were gradually whittled down amid political pressures. Even provisions that were once seen as certain to be in a final Senate package, like a renewable electricity standard, were stripped from the Senate bill.
And in the end, the chamber punted on even the oil spill-response bill, which many saw as the bare minimum the Senate would finalize before heading home.
“I think in some respects, it simply illustrates the fundamental challenges of getting something done in an election year,” said David Hunter, U.S. director for the International Emissions Trading Association. “The normal things don’t work this year.”
Heading into campaign season, political observers are divided over who will emerge from the fray with the upper hand.
“I think you’ve really got to give the nod to the Democrats,” said Ross Baker, a political expert at Rutgers University and a former Senate staffer.
“Clearly it’s something that I think a reasonable person would have thought would have passed by a kind of bipartisan consensus vote,” he said. “I think the Democrats can simply say, ‘Look, we really wanted to apply safeguards to drilling and Republicans denied it to us,’ so on balance I think the Democrats probably gain from it.”
But inaction looks bad for Democrats, countered Andrew Wheeler, a former Republican staff director for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee who now works for B&D Consulting.
“It showed he wasn’t serious about passing it,” Wheeler said of Reid’s decision to pull the bills from floor consideration. “It was all for political theater.”
Many other observers, including Ornstein and Hunter, say the politics may be a wash, with each party trying to reinforce stereotypes about the other.
“It just is another brick in both parties’ argument,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at theCook Political Report. “It’s another argument Democrats make that ‘See, Republicans block everything we do,’ which may or may not be accurate, and Republicans say, ‘We stopped Democrats from doing one more irresponsible thing.’”