Elections 2012: Ready to Rumble? The Senate Versus the House

Mark Trahant
10/11/12

Are you ready to rumble? There is no clearer division in American politics than the policy split between the United States Senate and the House of Representatives.

The Senate is controlled, sort of, by Democrats, while the Republicans run the House. The Senate versus House story is an ideal topic for tonight’s Vice Presidential Debate because Joe Biden, as Vice President, is President of the Senate. And challenger Paul Ryan is House Budget Committee Chair and on that body’s leadership team.

How different are the two bodies?

The House has repealed the Affordable Care Act – ObamaCare – thirty-three times. The most recent action was last summer after the Supreme Court upheld the measure.

“There’s a lot of resolve among my House colleagues, and among the American people, to stop a law that’s hurting our economy, driving up the cost of health care and stunting job growth,” House Speaker John Boehner wrote in his weekly column. “Public opinion research consistently shows most Americans not only oppose ObamaCare, but support fully repealing it. ... By passing our repeal bill in July, we will give the Senate and President Obama a second opportunity to follow the will of the American people.”

But every House repeal effort ended the same way: House Resolution 6079 died in the Senate.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said that body’s Democrats even refused to spend 15 minutes debating the entire law.

The divide over the Violence Against Women Act is another example of the two bodies diverging – and in this case tribal issues played a key role. The Senate voted 68 to 31 for the measure, even Republicans joining with the majority. The Senate bill recognizes tribal enforcement powers on domestic violence, even over non-Indians. The House bill instead directs battered women to federal courts, often distant from reservation communities.

“We are not going to back down,” said Washington Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington. “Not while there are thousands of women across our country that are excluded from the current law. In fact, for Native and immigrant women, and LGBT individuals – every moment our inclusive legislation to reauthorize VAWA is delayed, is another moment they are left without the resources and protection they deserve.”

Perhaps the greatest division between the House and the Senate is over spending. House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan easily got the body to pass his budget, one that includes substantial cuts for many programs designed to help low-income Americans.

Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, called Ryan’s budget “Robin Hood in reverse — on steroids.”

“It would likely produce the largest redistribution of income from the bottom to the top in modern U.S. history and likely increase poverty and inequality more than any other budget in recent times (and possibly in the nation’s history),” Greenstein said.

What’s interesting is that Ryan and House Republicans are complaining about the budget cuts coming from the Budget Control Act, sequestration, because of what those cuts will do to military spending. But the Ryan Budget cuts social programs substantially more than sequestration. (Rep. Tom Cole says the Ryan budget is actually better for Indian Health Service and the BIA.)

Ryan says it’s the Senate that is the problem and are irresponsible because they have not passed any budget. “Not only have they failed to adopt a budget, but with America under threat of financial calamity, they have refused to even present a plan for public scrutiny,” Ryan said in August. “Last year, Majority Leader Reid said it would be ‘foolish’ to do a budget and the legally required Budget Committee mark-up was cancelled. No plan from his conference has seen the light of day. He refuses to disclose who he plans to tax and how he plans to spend taxpayers’ money.”

Senate Democrats say the Budget Control Act is the law of the land and no budget is required.

There are many other substantive differences between the House and the Senate. The House has passed several laws to curtail abortion rights, including a limit on what the State Department’s family planning efforts globally. The House has also sought to curtail funding to Planned Parenthood, a move countered by Senate Democrats who argue that the agency is an important health care provider.

Beyond the stark policy differences, the two bodies are different in temperament. House Republicans have a clear majority, Democrats would need to pick up 25 seats in this election to return San Francisco’s Nancy Pelosi to the Speakership.

Democrats in the Senate have a slim majority, 51 Democrats, 47 Republicans and 2 Independents. Most bills require 60 votes – not 50 – because of a threat of a filibuster. Last summer Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid raised the possibility of new rules in the next Congress that would limit filibuster. After an election, the Senate can enact new rules with a simple majority.

In any presidential election, most of the contest is about the candidates, their personalities, and their policies. But it’s also important to consider what sort of governing coalition will exist beyond the White House, down Pennsylvania Avenue on Capitol Hill.

Tonight the House and Senate will rumble. Even if it's just background noise.

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. He has been writing about Indian Country for more than three decades. His e-mail is: marktrahant@thecedarsgroup.org.

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