The Senate's long weekend
The scene has become so familiar that it has lost its shock effect. The US government once again goes to the brink of shutting down for lack of an emergency spending measure.
As of this writing it is not yet certain when Congress and President Reagan will reach a truce to keep the government operating. The deadline for funding government agencies, including the armed forces, ran out last Friday night, and the Senate had passed no funding bill.
The House early in the week had approved and sent the $400 billion measure to the upper chamber. But despite marathon sessions, including one that stretched 37 hours and 50 minutes, the Senate failed to come up with a stopgap spending bill on time. Instead, it ticked off hours debating favorite issues of individual senators.
The weary group discussed whether to cut congressional staffs by 10 percent, an idea proposed by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) of New York and soundly rejected. Sen. Alan J. Dixon (D) wanted to bar the Pentagon from buying cameras from Germany instead of from his home state of Illinois, and the amendment was tabled, but not without debate and a recorded vote.
Long after the Friday deadline, Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina insisted on debates and separate votes on four amendments, including one to cut off funds for a United Nations Law of the Sea Conference in Jamaica that occurred last June. (He lost that one, but managed to trim $100 million from a foreign-aid program, the International Development Association.)
Each such controversial amendment required debate lasting at least 20 minutes. Then came a roll-call vote taking an additional 15 minutes, while the clerk went through the slow task of calling the 100 names as members who had taken refuge away from the chamber ambled back.
At last, on Saturday afternoon, Sen. Paul E. Tsongas (D) of Massachusetts came to the end of his patience. He rose to his feet. He had two amendments he wanted to offer, he said, but he would not offer them. Instead he registered a protest.
''Those of us who are trying to be reasonable are being crowded out,'' he said. Senator Tsongas, who noted that the wife of one senator has dubbed the Congress ''not a lame-duck but a lame-brain session,'' delivered a searing attack on Senate procedures that allow individual members to offer countless amendments to push for their personal causes.
While the House enforces strict limits on both debate and the number of amendments that can be offered, the Senate rules include few restrictions on either.
The Massachusetts lawmaker said he would not offer any amendments now, but he plans to launch an all out effort to change the rules of the Senate even if it means using the same tactics that he opposes.
Sen. Mark O. Hatfield (R) of Oregon, who as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee led the long fight for the emergency spending bill, seconded the Tsongas complaint. ''I only regret that every member of the Senate is not present (to hear),'' he said, adding that the upper body of Congress needs ''self-restraint or a rule change to elevate the Senate to a higher level.''
Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton (D) of Missouri added, ''This trial by ordeal . . . ought to be proof enough that the Senate rules are inadequate for the 20th Century.
''These rules that permit a handful to tie the Senate up in knots have to be changed,'' he said.
Within a few hours of that exchange, the Senate witnessed another example of one member holding up the entire session. With the spending bill finally ready for passage Saturday night, Sen. John P. East (R) of North Carolina surfaced with a filibuster that lasted until the predawn hours Sunday.
While Senator East aimed his tactic at the spending bill, his real goal was to delay a vote on the proposed nickel-a-gallon gasoline tax slated for a vote afterwards. East and three allies have continuously tried to hold up that bill, which has been passed by the House and backed by the President.
Since Senate rules give members almost unlimited rights to hold the floor, it appeared that the Senate was in for a long struggle with East. However, the freshman senator made the mistake of asking if a quorum were present. The presiding officer, Sen. Frank H. Murkowski (R) of Alaska ruled that East had asked for a quorum call and thus had relinquished the floor. It appears as of this writing that the Senate will act on the five-cent gas tax before it adjourns.
It is a foregone conclusion that the branches of government will find some way to keep the federal government operating, even if it has to go through the motions of ''shutting down'' for a day.
But the last week has done little raise public opinion of what has been referred to as the ''greatest deliberative body in the world.''