WITH DEMOCRATS united in opposition to ending any filibuster, the Senate has two options for getting to a vote on the roads bill: Reach a compromise with the filibusterers, or wait them out.
The way you wait out a filibuster is to make the filibusterer talk not for minutes on end but for hours on end, day and night, or at least day after day. It’s not to start at 1 and adjourn at 7, with recesses in between. It’s to start before 9 a.m. and go at least past 9 p.m., with no recesses.
The senators who aren’t holding the floor can eat lunch and nap in the antechamber and go to the restroom during a wait-out; it’s just the person holding them hostage who can’t do that.
Unfortunately, our Senate long ago stopped using this anti-filibuster tool. I suppose it just became too tedious. The last senator I can recall being forced by nature to give up the floor was Alex Macaulay, who spoke for 22 hours against a congressional reapportionment plan in 1992.
My most vivid memory of an Alec Macualay filibuster was actually three years earlier, when the Senate employed the wait-it-out maneuver with a twist: The Oconee Democrat had held the floor for only about six hours when senators invoked a rule allowing police to round up absent members and haul them back to the chamber; it was after midnight, and even those who agreed with Mr. Macaulay were so irritated at being roused from bed that they voted to make him stop.
(The memory remains vivid because I stayed with the Senate well past my midnight deadline, had to undergo an emergency wisdom tooth extraction later that morning, and then made the stupendously bad decision to write a news article about the filibuster’s end rather than taking pain medicine and going to sleep before the Novocain wore off.)
Today, senators aren’t even willing to stay in session extra days — beyond the normal Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday — much less more than a few extra hours each day.
Of course, it probably wouldn’t do them much good to end the roads filibuster, because, well, what would they do then? Vote down every amendment, and then defeat the bill, perhaps? So far, the vote counters tell us, there is no plan that can win a majority vote.
The problem is that our Senate is like the Republican presidential race: It’s divided by three, and even though there are common interests, no one is willing to form a coalition to get to a majority.
In the presidential race, one person appeals to angry voters and is not a conservative, one appeals to angry voters and is a conservative, and one is a conservative but doesn’t appeal to angry voters.
In the Senate, one faction wants to reform the governance of the Transportation Department but opposes any tax increase, one faction wants reform and a tax increase, and one faction wants a tax increase but no meaningful reform.
A similar “but then what?” problem exists with the ethics bill, which the Senate voted Thursday to put on priority debate status, behind a reasonable but hardly monumental highway safety bill, the roads bill and the appeal-to-angry-voters anti-migrant bill — which means it is more likely than other controversial measures to get debated but still unlikely to get debated.
As the sixth week of the session drew to a close and the second member of the reform-only tag team droned on Thursday afternoon, Senate Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin told me he was close to giving up on the permanent road-funding solution that most legislators, the business community and most drivers say we need.
But if not that, what? A lot of legislators seem ready to settle for another Band-Aid. Earlier Thursday, the House Ways and Means Committee voted to spend $250 million in state sales and income tax revenue on roads rather than education or the state’s statutory obligations to cities and counties or other underfunded needs that the money is supposed to cover.
Sen. Martin, who belongs to the middle-way group, has been toying with the idea of throwing in with the reform-only group. Although the no-reform camp has the most senators — with most if not all the Democrats, Senate Finance Chairman and President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman and a couple of other Republicans — the two groups of Republicans would have a majority if they voted together.
It wouldn’t be a compromise, but a capitulation to the reform-only group. But when road decisions are being made by a bunch of parochial, horse-trading legislative appointees who aren’t accountable to anyone, and the only alternative to reform-only is a tax increase with no real reform, reform-only easily becomes the better choice.
At least it fixes a problem. And it preserves the opportunity to fix the other problem later: The tax-only and tax-plus-reform groups can always come together next year to pass a permanent funding plan over the objections of the no-tax group. But if the Legislature creates a permanent funding source this year, there won’t be another opportunity to reform the governance of the agency. At least not until the next crisis. Which, come to think of it, probably won’t be that far off.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at email@example.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.