By Thomas Ferraro and Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Senate is under the gun to pass a transportation bill that would rev up road construction and create or save millions of jobs.
But in the month since the chamber started considering the bill, it has faced gridlock worse than a Los Angeles freeway at rush hour. Feuding parties loaded up the highway bill with more than 100 amendments covering everything from birth control to foreign money laundering. After weeks of partisan squabbling, passage remains uncertain. At one point, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid vented a common frustration. "I don't know why everything we do has to be a fight," he said. "Not a disagreement, a fight." The Senate, long described as the "world's greatest deliberative body," for two centuries stood as an elite and powerful chamber that offered a reasoned counterpart to the larger, more impulsive House of Representatives.
But in recent years it has strayed far off course, according to interviews with 10 current and former members. Faced with pressing issues like a ballooning national debt, an ailing healthcare system and the threat of climate change, the Senate now consumes its time with contentious debate that usually ends with no action.
For three years, the chamber has been paralyzed by routine budget bills. Judicial nominations languish, even when they have bipartisan support. And some of the Senate's most dramatic moments, broadcast on national television, are little more than calculated brinkmanship to stir up voters.
The poisonous atmosphere is taking its toll. Members complain of wasted time and thwarted legislative goals. The retirement announcement last week from Republican Senator Olympia Snowe, who expressed frustration at Senate inaction, prompted others to join in with similar assessments.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham told reporters Snowe's decision should be "a wakeup call to Congress." "We have reached a point where we do so little and waste so much time that it really does, I'm sure, weigh heavily on us all," Assistant Senate Democratic Leader Dick Durbin, who is close to President Barack Obama, said in an interview.
Echoed first-term Republican Senator Mike Johanns, a former Nebraska governor, "We came to Washington to do things. We need to do them."
CHAMBER OF TITANS
Historically, the Senate has played a pivotal role in American political life. Besides considering proposed laws, it has the power to conduct impeachment trials, approve presidential nominees, investigate government wrongdoing and approve treaties.
Its members included titans from both parties - Democrats like Lyndon Johnson and Edward Kennedy, and Republicans like Bob Dole and Howard Baker - who fought hard but still guided landmark legislation that changed American society.
So prestigious was the Senate that 16 of 44 presidents, including Obama, are alumni.
The founding fathers envisioned the Senate as a deliberative body that would balance the more raucous 435-member House. President George Washington theorized that it would "cool" legislation, just as a saucer cools hot tea.
But the Senate Historical Office website illustrates how dramatically these early hopes have shifted.
It displays a 95-year history of Senate "cloture motions." When a minority of senators oppose a bill, a vote on a cloture motion can remove the roadblock. Their frequency gauges Senate cooperation, or lack of it.
In 2009-2010, the first two years of Obama's presidency, 137 time-consuming "cloture motions" were filed in the Senate. The total in 1965-66, when civil rights battles divided the chamber: 7. In 1917-18, when the Senate began keeping cloture vote records: 2.
Procedural spats are only one measure. Partisan fights last year defined both the Senate and the House, where Tea Party-dominated battles deepened the divide on tax and spending issues. The feuds pushed the government to the brink of shutdown three times and a near debt default.
Instead of concrete action, Senate time is often consumed with symbolic "message votes," a publicity-seeking tactic employed by both parties to stake positions on issues they know will play well with voters.
In December, the Senate voted on a constitutional balanced budget amendment, long a pet project of Republicans who knew it would not pass but wanted to corner Democrats into a "no" vote.
Similarly, Senate Democrats orchestrated failed votes on a millionaires' surtax that Republicans oppose, mainly to bolster advertisements casting Republicans as defenders of the wealthy.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell accused Democrats of pushing legislation "that's designed for bus tours instead of bill signings."
Snowe, 65, first elected to the Senate in 1994, represents a vanishing breed in a chamber paralyzed by partisan tensions.
A Republican moderate, she was willing to work with Obama, at least during his first year in office. But she drew the wrath of her party's conservative wing, and over time, moved further to the right.
Last week, announcing her retirement decision, Snowe expressed growing frustration with forces pulling at members, even in the face of national crises.
"If you thought there would be galvanizing moments that would have prompted the Congress, and here in the Senate, to get things done, it would have been now given the collective weight of events," Snowe said.
Other members share her frustration.
Democratic Senator Benjamin Cardin said neither major party has figured out how to deal with the often uncompromising anti-big government Tea Party movement. He said lawmakers aligned with the group were "not really interested in governing, just interested in their positions."
Increasingly, incumbents are facing challengers in primary elections as Congress' approval ratings hit record lows. To survive, many believe they need to be even less bipartisan, less moderate.
In 1970, 33 percent of lawmakers were considered moderates, based on voting records, according to James Thurber of American University's Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies.
In 2011, the figure was 5 percent, said Thurber, who in the 1970s worked for liberal Democratic Senator Hubert Humphrey, a contemporary of conservative Republican Senator Barry Goldwater.
"Humphrey and Goldwater worked together. They drank together. They liked each other," Thurber said.
But most members of Congress no longer live in Washington year-round and many spend their off hours fighting for their political lives.
SETTING THE TONE
For Democrats, Republican leader McConnell set an obstructionist tone when he declared in 2010 that his top objective was to deny Obama a second term.
"If the main objective of a party in the Senate is to prevent a president from being elected and their strategy is to stop anything from passing, the country is in trouble," said Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, the Democrats' 2004 presidential nominee.
Last year, Kerry served on a bipartisan "super committee" to find major budget savings. He said talks collapsed after conservative outsiders pressured Republicans to block any deal.
"In the end ... it was this ideological gridlock that won the day," Kerry said in an interview.
Kerry noted that the Senate was designed to be "a deliberative and thoughtful place. ... It was never meant to produce no legislation or not face major consequences."
Former Senator Ted Kaufman, who spent two years in the Delaware seat of Vice President Joe Biden, said the Republicans' obstructionist strategy worked in driving down public approval of Congress. If Republicans should win the White House or take the Senate this year, he foresaw a new willingness to negotiate.
But Republicans also accuse Democrats of obstructionism, pointing to the many initiatives cleared by the Republican-controlled House that have stalled in the Senate.
Senator Joe Lieberman is not the typical senator. He came to the Senate in 1988 as a Democrat and switched to independent in 2006 when liberals attacked his conservative votes. He, too, feels partisanship has eroded the chamber's effectiveness.
"The tragedy here is that everybody I know who comes to the United States Senate comes to get something done," he said. "Yet people are sort of pulled apart by this process and end up in warring camps, a kind of perpetual partisan tug-of-war."
Frustrated with the failure of Democrats and Republicans to work together, Lieberman said this week he may vote for a third-party candidate for president - if one emerges he likes.
"It's so partisan, it's so ideologically rigid that we aren't coming to the middle where most people want us to be to get something done for the country," Lieberman said.
Former Republican Senator Judd Gregg noted that partisanship is driven by voters. More frequent primary challenges have forced members of Congress to work harder to appeal to ideological activists back home.
But the Senate remained "the last place in the federal government today where you do have a working and constructive middle," he said. He offered as proof the work last year by a large group of senators on a $4 trillion deficit reduction plan.
They did as much as they could, Gregg said, only to see "the president walk away from it."
(Additional reporting by Donna Smith; editing by Marilyn W. Thompson and Todd Eastham)