It’s a new year in Washington, and I cannot tell you how harmonious things are looking.
“There’s plenty of common ground for bipartisan compromise,” said Harry Reid, the new Senate minority leader. Well, not in person. Reid fell off an exercise machine at his house last week and he’s staying home until he no longer looks as if he was pummeled on his way to the cafeteria.
The Democrats’ second in command, Dick Durbin, promised that the Democrats would be “a much better minority” than the Republicans were. Meanwhile, the new majority leader, Mitch McConnell, promised to end Reid’s dictatorial tendencies and make the Senate “an engine for bipartisan achievement.”
McConnell and Reid both have a talent for depressing, cranky oratory. However, McConnell did interject a moment of levity when he suggested that the current rather remarkable strength of the U.S. economy was because of consumer ebullience over the election of a Republican majority in the Senate.
Anyhow, everybody in the Senate vowed to improve on last year’s performance. Then they instantly launched into a debate on the Keystone XL oil pipeline.
Was this what you were hoping for, people? I know polls show the majority of Americans support the oil pipeline, which when completed would run from Canada to the Gulf. I have also seen polls that show Americans like steak cooked medium and want Rex Ryan to be coach of the Atlanta Falcons. But nobody said either one should be the top national priority.
What’s the rush? The pipeline’s not going anywhere until a Nebraska court case gets worked out. And oil futures are currently down to around $50 a barrel, while the Canadian pipeline oil needs to sell for about $85.
Well, there are reasons. Passing the bill would make a lot of political donors happy. It would give senators a chance to demand that the United States, which became the No. 1 oil producer in the world during the Obama administration, do something about energy independence. It’s a chance to talk about jobs, even though the actual permanent employment created by the pipeline would be about as large as the opening of a new highway tollbooth.
Most important of all, the bill has a number of Democratic supporters, allowing orators to use the word “bipartisan” about 20 times a minute.
Meanwhile, in the very same new spirit of amity, House Speaker John Boehner assured the members that they would march into the future “on common ground, both in letter and in spirit.” This was right after his re-election. Yes, John Boehner is once again speaker of the House! Perhaps this was not on the top of your new-year wish-list either.
The Republican alternatives included Rep. Ted Yoho, the large-animal veterinarian from Florida who once argued that the Affordable Care Act was “racist” because it includes a tax on tanning beds. Another candidate was Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas, who warned that Muslim extremists were sneaking pregnant women into the United States to give birth to babies who “could be raised and coddled as future terrorists.” The rebel who got the most support, Rep. Daniel Webster of Florida, was nominated by Steve King of Iowa, the guy who complained about young undocumented immigrants with “calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.”
“My door is always open,” the triumphant Boehner told the House. Then he added: “Now don’t get carried away with this, all right?”
We appreciate that attitude in Boehner. Also, we appreciate him refusing to back up Yoho when Yoho claimed the speaker had agreed with his theory about tanning beds.
On the other hand, Boehner stayed behind the majority whip, Steve Scalise of Louisiana, who was re-elected despite the revelation that when he was a state legislator in 2002, he gave a speech to members of a white supremacy group.
“I know what’s in his heart,” the speaker said.
How do you feel about this one? Scalise said the appearance was a mistake, and it is true that many politicians could make a speech before an assembly of cabbages without noticing that there was anything unusual about the room. On the other hand, in 2004, Scalise was one out of only six people in the 104-member Louisiana House to vote against making Martin Luther King Day a state holiday.
Let’s hope that when we look back on the 114th Congress we don’t remember that the high point was John Boehner beating out Ted Yoho. In fact, a truly cynical mind might wonder if the whole rebellion wasn’t staged by Boehner partisans just to show how horrific the alternative was.
Boehner partisans, however, expressed dismay at the lack of team unity.
“I just think it’s disrespectful to the conference, and it’s politically immature,” said Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma. “We ought to be talking about Keystone ...”
Gail Collins joined The New York Times in 1995 as a member of the editorial board and later as an Op-Ed columnist. In 2001 she became the first woman ever appointed editor of the Times’s editorial page.