With the federal government sinking deeper into red ink and a government shutdown looming, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has proposed pushing back the deadline for spending cuts and instead have the Senate take up an unrelated bill to revamp U.S. patent law — a measure that has nothing to do with the raging fiscal battle.
Across the Capitol, new House Speaker John A. Boehner has gone in the opposite direction, promoting a free-flowing debate during which his party's conservative wing passed unprecedented budget cuts that went at times far beyond what the speaker intended.
That the two men are taking different tacks is not surprising: Mr. Boehner, Ohio Republican, won his speakership last year on the strength of voter anger, while Mr. Reid, Nevada Democrat, held onto his Senate seat and his majoritywhen that anger proved insufficient to alter the outcome in a few key Senate races.
Those differences are likely to surface repeatedly in the coming weeks, as lawmakers clash on critical issues, ranging from federal spending and the soaring national debt to the need to create jobs in an economy still facing a 9 percent unemployment rate.
Former Sen. Judd Gregg, New Hampshire Republican, who retired last year after decades in Congress, said the two men "come from different times and different places."
"It is fairly obvious that the House is much closer to the intensity of feeling in the American public on the issue of spending and deficit and debt than the Senate is, and that is simply a function of the fact that everybody in the House went through a very intense election cycle and only a third of the Senate did," Mr. Gregg said.
"The House was set up to be the cauldron, and, as Washington said, the Senate is supposed to be the saucer in which the hot tea is poured," he said. "But the irony here is that the House is functioning like the Senate, and the Senate is trying to function like the House, which is a complete reversal of what their constitutional role is — to say nothing of the practical political role they should have."
The GOP-dominated House has already done some heavy lifting, holding 147 recorded votes so far this session and working into the early hours Saturday morning to produce a spending bill that cuts $61 billion from 2010 levels. The heavily amended final measure passed on a 235-189 vote that saw no Democrats support the bill.
By contrast, the Senate has barely been in town, holding just 25 recorded votes and devoting much of its floor time this month to a noncontroversial aviation bill, which passed last week by an 87-8 margin.
With the government due to run out of money March 4, Mr. Reid has said he will ask House Republicans to push the deadline back a month while work continues on a compromise bill. He defends turning to the patent-law reform as a measure that has bipartisan support and can help create jobs.
"Patent reform is a jobs bill because it allows good ideas to become reality, creating manufacturing jobs in the U.S. building goods that can be sold around the world," said Jon Summers, Reid's spokesman. "Work is still ongoing on the [the spending bill], but that doesn't prevent us from working on a bill on the floor while we continue to try to work out an agreement with the Republicans."
David F. DaMore, a political science professor at UNLV, said of Mr. Reid's governing style, "Substance is important to him, but his job is more sort of a herding-the-cats kind of role."
"He's much more in terms of a dealmaker and behind-the-scenes type of a guy, as he has shown on health care and other issues where he has cut deals that he is willing to do that," Mr. DaMore said.
Mr. DaMore suggested, by contrast, that part of the reason Mr. Boehner has taken a more hands-off approach as House speaker is the challenge of controlling his splintered caucus, including more than 80 new members — many of them tea party-backed freshman who are not beholden to the wishes of party leaders.
"At the end of the day, if [Mr. Boehner] tries to tighten the clamps and say … leadership is going to structure policy, that would just blow up in his face," he said.
Former Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican, said Mr. Boehner's free-wheeling approach to 2011 spending has won kudos from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, after a period in which former Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi routinely blocked open debate and freewheeling votes on amendments on the floor.
"I think he saw what happens with the strong-arm tactics in the last Congress, and I think he wants the House to work its will sometimes," Mr. Davis said. "It was tough, and he did it in a way that allowed every member to get a vote under amendments. These members all are elected. They all have rights, and [a bill] is not going to be written in a backroom by a handful of committee chairman."
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