Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2011 | 7:04 p.m.
Well here’s something you don’t see every day: Dean Heller, flanked by Democrats — some of whom even had nice things to say about his legislative proposals.
Heller participated Tuesday in a press conference sponsored by the nonpartisan advocacy group No Labels, which was holding a forum in the Capitol to promote a “Make Congress Work” agenda. Heller’s “No Budget, No Pay” act is the first item of the group’s 12-point plan.
“If we don’t budget by the end of this fiscal year … members of Congress will not get paid,” Heller said of his proposal. “I believe we’re here to do a job, we’re here to work, we’re here to do what’s best for the American people, and that’s the concept behind ‘No Budget, No Pay’.”
“This is a tough measure … but it’s a necessary measure,” added Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper of Tennessee. “At a time when our nation’s credit rating is literally threatened, we cannot afford to fail a budget or not pay our bills on time. So it’s very important members get the message: do your work or you don’t get paid. I think it will force congress do its work on a timely basis, which is essential to the credit of our nation.”
But while these sentiments may resonate with a public frustrated with Washington (Congress’ approval rating is hovering around 12 percent), they've got a slim-to-none chance of making any sort of a difference in Washington.
Even Heller, who has been stumping for his proposal since this summer, admits that his ‘No Budget, No Pay’ act is a longshot in the current Congress. But that doesn’t make it particularly unique among the items on the No Labels “Make Congress Work” agenda.
Most of the points on the 12-step plan are either longshots, have already failed to pass the current Congress, or are initiatives some of the featured lawmakers don’t even support themselves.
“Fix the filibuster” is one of the items on the No Labels agenda — something the Senate tried and failed to do back in January, adopting a rather innocuous tweak to its rules instead that are intended to usher certain categories of presidential nominees through Congress on an expedited schedule.
“Up or Down Vote on Presidential Appointments,” through which No Labels seeks to impose a 90 day time limit on all presidential nominees is another — but the Senate (the body which has to confirm appointees) failed to come to an agreement on that for most categories of nominations earlier this year too.
Heller wasn’t around the Senate for the filibuster and presidential nominations fight of last winter. But he’s still got his weak spots on the list — for example, No. 8: “No Pledge but the Oath of Office.” While Heller insists it doesn’t govern his voting, he’s not exactly rushed to rip up the Taxpayer Protection Pledge (a no-new-taxes creation of Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform group) he signed on the first day he was sworn in as Nevada’s 25th Senator — a move Democrats have repeatedly raked him over the coals for since.
Which brings up another point on the No Labels agenda: No. 12, “No Negative Campaigns Against Incumbents.” (Aside from the obvious chortle that proposal might well elicit, it would also seem to trample a bit on freedom of speech.)
The point is, while the use of words like “bipartisan” and “cooperation” are popular sentiments to strew about, they are seedlings that cannot take root in the current congressional environment, in which all eyes are focused on 2012.
The senators on the No Labels stage are no stranger to that overarching reality. Of the four that joined in the group plea for more bipartisan cooperation in Washington Tuesday, at least two — Heller, a Republican, and Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida — will be locked in some of the most partisan contests of the cycle to keep their seats; ones in which the national parties are likely to dive into with gusto, as they may decide who has control of the Senate.
Heller and Nelson rarely vote together, incidentally, especially on the most contentious compromise bills of the last year. Nelson has voted for the compromise budget resolutions and debt ceiling plans Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker John Boehner struck periodically since last April. Heller hasn’t.
But this “Make Congress Work” isn’t about voting together so much as agreeing to play nice together. Even there though, recent history says it’s just a pipe dream.