As the Senate Democratic leader pushed his immigration bill through the chamber yesterday, Republican leader Mitch McConnell took a pass on the debate and left his rank-and-file members to fend for themselves.
Mr. McConnell finds himself in the crossfire between a majority of his own senators, who oppose the bill, and President Bush, who desperately wants it to pass. The Kentucky Republican's solution has been to go underground, leaving his party's senators to fight among themselves and with Democrats.
During all of yesterday's back-and-forth and procedural maneuvers, he did not utter a word, even eschewing the usual duty of helping open the day's proceedings.
"I've been very, very disappointed, but there's nothing to be gained at this point" from making him angry, said one of the 25 Republicans who voted earlier this week to block the bill but who said making their dispute with Mr. McConnell public would not help Republicans in the future.
Mr. McConnell's disappearance has been stark — particularly in comparison to Sen. Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, who was on the floor virtually all of yesterday, using his position as majority leader to control the proceedings and prevent amendments.
And that's exactly what irks Republicans.
The bill collapsed three weeks ago when 50 Republicans and Democrats demanded more time to pass amendments. But a week later, Mr. McConnell struck an agreement with Mr. Reid to resurrect the bill, with the Republican vowing to limit amendments from his side to about a dozen, and Mr. Reid agreeing to bring back the bill.
Mr. Reid says Mr. McConnell and the White House have agreed to far more than that, though. He said they approved his use of the "clay pigeon" technique that has effectively shut out the recalcitrant senators and restricted the debate to a list of about two dozen hand-picked amendments.
"I would not have considered employing it in this instance without the full support of Senator McConnell," Mr. Reid wrote in a letter to the objecting senators, which he read on the floor yesterday. "The White House made clear that it also favors such a procedure, since the immigration bill is one of President Bush's top priorities."
Mr. McConnell's spokesman, Don Stewart, said there wasn't much they could do.
"He told him about it, [Mr. McConnell] didn't object to it, and even if he had, it wouldn't have stopped the amendment going forward," said Mr. Stewart. He also said Mr. McConnell secured time to offer a dozen Republican-sponsored amendments this week as a way of protecting the minority's rights.
But Republicans said they wanted Mr. McConnell to lead the rebellion, as he did three weeks ago when he helped block the bill. Part of the problem is that Mr. McConnell has not taken an open stance on the bill. He voted for last year's version, and has said this year's version is better, but still won't commit one way or the other.
Republicans refused to publicly blame Mr. McConnell, with Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina saying their leader is "doing the best he can" with the situation. But they also said they feel they are fighting alone, without the help of Mr. McConnell or their president, and the frustration showed yesterday.
"Senator McConnell's not being railroaded, President Bush is not being railroaded, I'm being railroaded," Sen. David Vitter, Louisiana Republican, told Mr. Reid on the floor.
Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican and one of those pushing to pass the bill, said the objectors have only themselves to blame. He said they wasted their chance to offer amendments during the bill's first go-around on the floor three weeks ago.
Mr. Specter, who as the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee took the leader's podium in Mr. McConnell's absence, said those who want the bill passed had to use rough tactics.
"We have rights, too, and the way we are proceeding is fully within the rules of the Senate," he said. "It's going to be a rough ride. We're in trench warfare, and it's going to be tough, but we're going to see the will of the Senate worked one way or the other."