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Senate sets standards for success far too low

The Senate is "beginning to work again"? Perhaps its time to raise the bar for what constitutes an effective chamber on Capitol Hill.
The sun begins to set behind the US Capitol in Washington, D.C.
The sun begins to set behind the US Capitol in Washington, D.C.
Action on the Senate floor has been stymied of late by a bizarre partisan dispute, but members finally reached a compromise yesterday that will clear things up. But before senators strain themselves patting themselves on the back, they might want to consider raising their standards for success.

Republicans and Democrats in the Senate reached an agreement Tuesday on an anti-human-trafficking bill, clearing the way for a vote on President Barack Obama's nomination of Loretta Lynch for attorney general. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said he expected a vote on Lynch "in the next day or so."

The anti-human-trafficking bill has been pending since February, caught up in an obscure fight over abortion language. The delay over the Lynch nomination has lasted even longer, after Republican leaders tied it to the trafficking legislation for reasons even they can't explain.
But yesterday, members worked something out. As Sahil Kapur explained, the agreement now says "victims can use compensation funds for legal aid and a separate pool of taxpayer money for medical services.... Hyde Amendment restrictions on abortion (with narrow exceptions for rape, incest and to protect the mother's life) apply."
So what happens now? The trafficking bill will advance, likely with near-unanimous support, which will then lead to a confirmation vote for Lynch, probably tomorrow. She appears to have the votes needed to prevail.
Stepping back, Capitol Hill seemed quite pleased with itself after yesterday's breakthrough. The Hill reported this morning that Senate Republicans "are on a bit of a roll," adding that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has "passed an important leadership test this week by reaching a compromise."
His top lieutenant, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), boasted yesterday, "I've actually been somewhat surprised and more optimistic than I have been in a long time about how the Senate is beginning to work again."
That's one way to look at recent events. The other way suggests Cornyn has it backwards.
Dana Milbank provided some useful context.

It might be worth interrupting this victory lap to point out that the lawmakers were taking credit for the legislative equivalent of tying their shoes. The trafficking bill, which combats sex slavery, cleared committee unanimously but had been hung up over an extraneous provision about abortion funding; the dispute compounded a months-long delay for Lynch, who has enough votes to clear the Senate. Even if Lynch is confirmed and the trafficking bill passes, the Senate will have confirmed just 22 nominees so far this year, according to Democratic leadership, fewer than the Senate had done by the same point in each of the previous four Congresses. It also will have approved just 16 bills (fewer than at this point in all but one of the previous four Congresses), and five of those had been blocked by the Republican minority in the last Congress.

Look, I'm delighted an anti-human-trafficking bill will pass and Lynch will probably be confirmed. But the trafficking measure enjoyed broad bipartisan support and was on track to pass 100 to 0 -- right up until the Senate managed to trip on its way to the finish line. What should have taken a couple of hours ended up taking a couple of months. When the chamber gets bogged down in months of ugly wrangling over the year's easiest and most obvious piece of bipartisan legislation, this isn't proof of a chamber operating effectively.
Likewise, this is the same Senate that has effectively held an attorney general nominee hostage for reasons no one has been able to explain coherently. She's likely to eke out a win, despite overwhelming opposition from a majority party that can't think of any substantive reasons to derail her nomination, but which will vote against her anyway.
The Senate is "beginning to work again"? Why, because members took two months to put out a fire they started for no reason?
When it comes to Congress, the bar for success tends to be placed pretty low, but let's not mistake the Senate's recent antics for a finely tuned machine.