It was supposed to be a few days of relative bipartisan bonhomie in the Senate: A modest but popular energy bill was on the floor. Though senators may have faced a tough vote or two on U.S. EPA rules or the Keystone XL pipeline, the bill was expected to make it across the finish line, demonstrating that at least one chamber of Congress could function.
Instead, one Republican, Louisiana Sen. David Vitter, decided to hijack the debate by demanding a vote on his wholly unrelated amendment taking renewed aim at the health care reform law. As a result, formal work on the efficiency bill from Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) ground to a halt last week, and it seems doubtful that a solution can be found by the time the Senate reconvenes this afternoon.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) warned last week that he might have to pull the bill altogether because of the impasse -- and that was before the feud grew increasingly personal at the end of last week.
In public, Vitter was called an anarchist and a hostage taker. Privately, Democratic senators and aides were preparing to dredge up past allegations that Vitter frequented prostitutes, according to a Thursday night report posted by Politico.
The article reported that Democrats had drafted legislation including language that would deny health care contributions to lawmakers for whom the ethics committee has determined there is "probable cause" that he or she has "engaged in the solicitation of prostitution."
"I think that's hardball at its extreme," said Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, of the reported draft legislation and the decision by someone to deliver a "brushback pitch" by leaking it to the press.
In response, Vitter called Reid "an old-time Vegas mafia thug" in a statement to Politico. Then, on Friday, Vitter homed in on another aspect of the story, which said Democrats were considering tying members' health benefits to their voting records, to accuse Reid and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) of bribery.
Vitter wrote to the Senate Ethics Committee requesting an investigation and asking that Boxer recuse herself from chairing the committee. It is unclear how he decided to target those two senators, although he and Boxer have frequently butted heads from their posts atop the Environment and Public Works Committee. Requests for comment to Vitter's office went unreturned Friday.
"Senator Vitter's charges are absurd and baseless," said Kristen Orthman, a spokeswoman for Reid, in an email Friday. "This is nothing more than Senator Vitter's desperate attempt to change the subject from his previous ethics issues."
In a statement, Boxer called the accusations "a bizarre and phony attack that demeans the Senate."
The amped-up acrimony is leading most observers to predict the energy bill will not survive. Reid said Thursday that negotiations would continue, but there is little time left for the Senate to work on the bill amid the higher priority of preventing a government shutdown before Oct. 1 and the possibility that the chamber will be forced to return its attention to Syria.
Reid could file for cloture to cut off debate, or he could "fill the tree" to prevent amendments like Vitter's from coming up. But that would require Republican support to get 60 votes, and GOP senators typically object to efforts to limit debate on amendments. Plus, aside from Vitter's sideshow, dozens of senators are seeking votes on amendments that actually relate to energy policy, and part of the deal to bring it to the floor involved pledging a robust amendment debate.
"It's not unprecedented for some members of Congress to play this obstruction game of bringing up something that's clearly irrelevant and getting in the way of progress. And that's exactly what's happening," said Franz Matzner, associate director of government affairs for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
"Sometimes that means that nothing gets done," he said.
The irony is that the Shaheen-Portman bill, S. 1392, was tailor-made to avoid such partisan infighting and gained outsized prominence in the Senate precisely because of its broad appeal with outside interest groups ranging from the National Association of Manufacturers to the Sierra Club lining up in support.
First introduced more than two years ago, the bill was gradually whittled down to appease senators' objections. A loan guarantee provision was eliminated in the post-Solyndra backlash to such schemes, then the state grant program that replaced it fell to the sidelines when deficit hawks noticed it would increase government spending. A leading argument for the bill became what it did not include: federal mandates on the private sector.
"This bill highlights all that is wrong with the Senate right now," said Jim Manley, a former senior adviser to Reid. "It was crafted on a bipartisan basis. It was refined further when objections were made by Republicans to try and make it as acceptable as possible. They waited a long time to get some floor time, and now that it's here, it's being hijacked."
Democratic aides and their allies said the best way to break the logjam would be for Portman to get more involved in urging Vitter to drop his objections. But so far, Portman has shown no signs of wanting to do that. In remarks from the Senate floor last week, Portman said he hoped to find a way forward but stressed that Vitter deserves a vote on his amendment.
"I think we need to figure out how to resolve the health care issue in a way that does permit this chamber to have its voice heard but then get back to this underlying legislation and to these amendments," Portman said Thursday.
In the same vein, some of the more conservative interest groups supporting the underlying Shaheen-Portman bill seem to be largely staying out of the Vitter spat. Jamie Hennigan, a spokesman for the manufacturers, said in an email, "The NAM has remained neutral on the amendment process up until now and will continue to do so."
Republican aides say the blame for the impasse lies at the feet of Reid and the Democrats. They should just let the vote happen and move on, GOP sources say, arguing that they have been stymied many times before in efforts to force tough votes.
At the end of the day, Vitter's gambit seems likely to fail. While Vitter has shown himself willing to shoot the hostage he took, it does not seem that Senate Democrats value the bill more than the ransom they are being asked to pay in the form of yet another Obamacare vote.
While nearly everyone likes the bill, there's just not enough in its few dozen pages -- setting voluntary building codes, establishing industrial assistance program and ordering federal agencies to reduce their energy use -- to give it anything close to must-pass status.
It was designed to be small, an effort to "put some points on the board," as Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said time and time again last week -- and to demonstrate that the Senate could pass an energy bill for the first time since 2007. If it passed, supporters said, maybe that would herald hope for a new era of small-bore energy bills that could make it through a fractured Congress.
"If this bill can't get through the Congress," said former Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), co-chairman of the Bipartisan Policy Center's Energy Project, "then it just describes for the American people how impossible it is to get anything through."