In the world outside the Senate, time is money; inside it, time is everything. Senate Republicans are taking full advantage of that reality, using every parliamentary device at their disposal to slow down an extension of unemployment insurance benefits -- even after Democrats added billions for big business to sweeten the pot.
The saga is a cast study both in the difficulty of passing even popular legislation in the Senate and the lengths to which the GOP is going to slow down the process.
The extension overwhelmingly passed the House 331-83 in late September. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) made a motion to pass it by unanimous consent in early October; it was blocked by GOP objections.
After negotiations, Reid filed for cloture on Oct. 21 to break a GOP filibuster. On October 27, the Senate voted 87-13 on a motion to proceed to consider the bill, breaking the filibuster.
But under Senate rules, the GOP is still allowed 30 hours of "debate." There actually isn't much debate, but the clock is ticking while senators take to the floor to make speeches about whatever they like.
To get things moving, Democrats sweetened the pot, adding in billions in tax breaks for business -- a net operating loss carry-back provision that the GOP has long favored -- and an extension of the homebuyer tax credit. Reid introduced the goodies in a substitute amendment with Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), a champion of the business tax break.
"The two were put together as a means of greasing the skids. You know how things work around here," Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) told HuffPost. "Could we have gotten UI through otherwise? Yes, we could have, but it would have taken us several days. And we don't have that kind of time. And the minority is then able to, because of the time, demand certain things."
The skids properly greased, Reid filed for cloture again on Oct. 29th. It came to a vote Monday night, Nov. 2nd, where it passed 85-2.
Still, the GOP fights, requesting that the 30 more hours of "debate" elapse. That'll take the Senate to late Tuesday night. If Reid invokes cloture again to proceed to the underlying bill, another 30 hours would take the Senate to Thursday morning at the earliest for -- at last -- a vote on the bill itself.
Following such overwhelming votes, a measure usually passes the Senate by a quick voice vote. "The common practice is when you get cloture on motion to proceed, you quickly allow it to pass," says Jim Manley, senior communications adviser for Reid.
Manley and other Democratic aides argued that the goodies given to big business are acceptable to Democrats as ways to boost the economy rather than pure giveaways. The first-time homebuyer tax credit is wildly popular and Democrats had planned to pass it at some point before it expired at the end of the month.
"There are only so many ways to strengthen the economy that can get 60 votes and get enacted quickly -- these happen to be two of them," said Manley.
The GOP says it's been working constructively with Reid. "Sen. McConnell offered to complete the bill last week on Thursday. Sen. Reid objected," said Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
The objection came, Manley said, because Republicans were trying to introduce unrelated amendments attacking ACORN and the financial-industry bailout, among other things. Stewart countered that Democrats, having attached a hate-crimes measure to a defense-authorization bill, have little room to talk about unrelated amendments. He added that Republicans offered to withdraw several of the objectionable amendments.
It all sounds complicated, but it's simple: Behind all the bickering back and forth sits the reality that the GOP, as the minority party, has the right to slow down the Senate and is fully exercising that right. With days and days of floor time eaten up by a simple extension of unemployment benefits, chances dwindle that the Senate will be able to complete in time the appropriations bills that fund the government.
"What's really going on is that the Republicans are trying to slow-walk everything, to make it as difficult as possible for Democrats to accomplish much," said Manley. "This won't be the first time that they slow things down as much as possible, then vote for final passage. While they are intent on obstructionism, they don't want the blame for opposing popular policies."
In the meantime, according to a Senate Democratic ticker, more than 185,000 people have lost their unemployment benefits.