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Gail Collins: Minority leader kills the work of Senate women

Congress, like France, does not believe anybody should have to work during August. However, to be fair, the French feel compelled to do some stuff during the other 11 months.

We do not have nearly enough time to discuss all the exciting things that happened in the final week before summer vacation. The House, for instance, voted for the 40th time to repeal the Affordable Care Act. I will summarize the debate:

"Obamacare is bad. ... " (Majority Leader Eric Cantor)

"Forty is a number that is fraught with meaning in the Bible. ..." (Nancy Pelosi)

Meanwhile, the Senate considered a bill to appropriate money for transportation, housing and urban development. This sounds a little dull, but I want you to consider that its nickname is THUD.

In normal times, back when Congress got things done and disco was extremely popular, the transportation bill was easy to pass. Everybody likes roads and bridges. This year, THUD was a labor of love in the Senate Appropriations Committee, where Barbara Mikulski is chairwoman, Patty Murray is the leader of the transportation subcommittee and Susan Collins is the top-ranking Republican. I am not going to point out that they are all women. Just that they worked well together and were considerate of everyone's feelings.

After long and effortful negotiations, they came up with a bipartisan deal that made most people reasonably happy. In another show of good will, Murray - who handled the bill on the floor - agreed to let the senators keep debating until their tongues fell out and permitted the introduction of more than 80 proposed amendments. "Including," she said in a phone interview, "one totally off-message and off-subject on Egypt."

Ah, yes. That would have been the work of Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, the libertarian White House wannabe. Paul proposed withdrawing foreign aid to Egypt and using it for bridge repair. The Middle East is not something you're supposed to fiddle around with during a transportation debate, but, as Murray said, she was going the extra mile. The amendment was defeated 86-13.

Murray and Collins were confident that they had the 60 votes necessary to get their bill through the Senate. "Everyone has falling-apart roads and crumbling bridges," Collins said. Most of the Republicans on the Appropriations Committee had voted for it. And then there was all that debate and the 80-plus amendment proposals, and everything was going swell.

Enter the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell. "For reasons I don't fully understand, Sen. McConnell decided he needed to draw a line in the sand," said Collins.

There are many theories, one of which involves McConnell's re-election campaign in Kentucky. It is not going great. He's being primaried by a Tea Party candidate, and there are polls suggesting his constituents don't find him all that likable. Lately, McConnell has been struggling to look like a rebellious right-winger rather than a future lobbyist. He even voted for the Egypt amendment.

"I've never seen him work harder to kill a bill," said Collins. "And this is my 17th year here."

Suddenly, everybody realized the bill was doomed, and the senators were flitting around, buzzing. "Sit down and shut up!" said the majority leader, Harry Reid. As only he could.

An angry Susan Collins, who would be the only Republican to vote for the bill, took the floor and expressed her frustration. Murray followed, while Mikulski watched indignantly. In the Senate president's chair, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin was presiding. Everybody was a woman! Except Mitch McConnell, who, having already twisted all the necessary limbs, just made a vague speech about how the bill would be viewed by Americans as a betrayal of the Budget Control Act of 2011.

Under McConnell's argument, which he made with approximately the same amount of passion one would use to lace a shoe, the nation would spend August in an uproar about the Senate's failure to live up to the spirit of a crazy deal that was cobbled together two years ago to keep the nation from crashing through the debt ceiling. No one would have the heart to barbecue.

Actually, the commitment Congress is supposed to be following is its own budget plan. The Senate and House each have one. The House version is very austere, and this week the members got a chance to start putting it in action with -- yes! -- a transportation bill. Once they got a look how their principled stand against spending translated into real life, they recoiled in horror and their leaders yanked it off the agenda.

In a normal world, the House and Senate would get together in a conference committee to work out a joint budget deal. This year, the Senate Republicans keep vetoing that. So, on Thursday, just before the senators left for the airport, Murray asked her leadership to once again request a conference.

"They're going to object," she predicted. "And it'll be a guy who'll be saying no, by the way."

She was right.

"I'm going to go home and eat chocolate," Murray decided.

Gail Collins is a columnist for The New York Times.



By GAIL COLLINS