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How low can you go in DC?

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POSTED October 8, 2013 1:42 a.m.

The feud between Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and David Vitter, R-La., doesn’t have the import of the federal government shutdown, but it does shine a light on the Beltway’s partisan rancor. If there is a lesson for Washington politicos from this mud fight, then it is this: Don’t try to be clever. There will be blowback.

The story begins when Democrats were pushing President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, inserted language into the bill to require that Congress and staff get their health insurance through Obamacare exchanges.

Grassley’s amendment didn’t explicitly address the government’s contribution — about 75 percent — toward its employees’ health premiums, which is standard practice in employer-paid health plans. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker John Boehner asked the White House to protect the employer contribution. The administration obliged.

Here Vitter saw an opportunity to seem more anti-Washington than his pals in the anti-Washington posse. To the dismay of staffers from both parties, Vitter proposed an amendment to require that White House personnel and appointees get health insurance through Obamacare and to do away with the employer contribution, leaving these federal employees to pick up the full cost.

Maybe Vitter thought that it was good politics to propose what effectively is a $5,000 to $11,000 annual pay cut for Capitol Hill staff members. But if I were in his shoes, I’d be careful walking around corners.

Next it was Senate Democrats’ turn to be cute. Anonymous Democrats leaked tit-for-tat phony “draft” legislation to Politico’s website. Manu Raju and John Bresnahan reported that Dems were considering three options, starting with an amendment barring the employer contribution to the health insurance of any lawmaker or staffer who a congressional ethics committee has “probable cause” to believe “engaged in solicitation of prostitution.”

Say what? The story explained: “Such a hardball move could bring back uncomfortable memories of the 2007 ‘D.C. Madam’ scandal in which Vitter’s phone number turned up in a Washington-based prostitution ring. Vitter apologized for committing a ‘very serious sin’ but did not elaborate.”

The second option would deny employer contributions to those involved in “improper conduct” that reflects badly on Congress, and the third would deny the same to lawmakers who voted for the Vitter amendment.

The prank shows why Rutgers University political science professor Ross Baker calls Politico “the bathroom wall of choice” in Washington, where “the Sharpies come out and the nasty graffiti are written.”

Democrats could have stuck to the high road and hit Vitter for mandating a backdoor pay cut for the people who keep the Capitol running. Instead, some unknown cut-ups ratcheted up the rancor with a fictional and counterproductive salvo against Vitter.

Next, Vitter soiled the swamp by asking the Senate Select Committee on Ethics, chaired by Boxer, to investigate whether Boxer, Reid or their staff broke Senate rules. (As Vitter requested, Boxer recused herself in the matter.) It’s not clear why Vitter fingered Reid or Boxer.

Vitter’s complaint argued that by tying votes to benefits, the Politico ghost amendments constituted “attempted bribery.” Vitter also argued that if Reid, Boxer and staff deny that they were involved in “this Democratic intimidation and payoff scheme,” the committee should force them to answer questions under penalty of perjury.

Vitter presented no proof that Reid and Boxer were behind the Politico story; nonetheless, after the committee rejected his complaint, Vitter filed a second letter calling for a probe, even as he recognized the “off-chance” — read: possibility — that Reid and Boxer had no role in the Politico prank.

Boxer dismisses Vitter’s charge as “baseless.” In a statement, she noted, “This whole matter has gone from bizarre to surreal. I believe a senator using the Ethics Committee to launch political attacks is unprecedented and outrageous.”

It’s also not very bright. You can’t read Vitter’s complaints without reading about the “D.C. Madam” scandal.

“How low can you go?” asked Baker, as he recognized “the limbo principle of American politics.”

Baker, a former House Democratic consultant, has dedicated his academic career to studying how congressional committees operate and how chairmen and ranking members work together. Boxer chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee; Vitter is the ranking Republican. How does Vitter work with Boxer after demanding she be questioned under penalty of perjury on his unsubstantiated accusation?

Said Baker, “The cat is out of the bag, and it’s very hard to get it back in again.”

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