Sure, it probably
seemed that the Senate quickly and decisively passed a
plan to keep the much-argued-about cross sitting atop
Mount Soledad. The vote was unanimous, there was no
debate, and it came less than two weeks after House
But things rarely go that smoothly in politics.
While the proposal to transfer the 29-foot cross to
federal control seemed to breeze through the upper chamber
Aug. 1 with barely a batted eyelash – PresidentBush is to
sign the measure today – its passage was actually
accompanied by a lot of behind-the-scenes maneuvering.
After the House voted
349-74 in July to shift the city land to the Defense
Department to avoid a court-ordered removal of the cross,
Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama – we get to his political
designation later on, with a reason – immediately
introduced a nearly identical bill and began working to
get it put on the consent calendar, which dispenses with
debate and a recorded vote.
Just as immediately, California Sens. Dianne Feinstein
and Barbara Boxer declared their support for keeping the
cross atop the 822-foot hill overlooking La Jolla. This by
itself was somewhat remarkable. The two Democrats tend to
side more often with church-state separation types who
want the cross removed than with conservatives such as
Rep. Duncan Hunter, the Alpine Republican who authored the
legislation to transfer the land beneath the war memorial
to federal control.
A POPULAR STAND
But the two senators have also argued that public money
for repairs should go to missions that hold Catholic
services because of the historic nature of the buildings,
suggesting that ideology tends to fly out the window when
local voters have strong opinions on a matter. That's
assuredly the case in San Diego, where 76 percent of
voters last fall approved a measure that would have
donated the cross to the federal government, but which a
judge said violated the state constitution.
So it came as a surprise when Sessions brought up his
bill for a vote one morning shortly after Hunter's measure
passed the House, only to discover that Sen. Bill Nelson,
D-Fla., objected to voting on the matter.
Nelson spokesman Dan McLaughlin insisted that Nelson
himself supported Sessions' bill. He objected to a vote
that morning as a favor to the two senators from
California, McLaughlin said.
Feinstein and Boxer were working furiously that same
day to write their own version of the Hunter legislation.
Said Boxer spokeswoman Natalie Ravitz: “This is a
California matter, so the California senators are going to
take the lead. We would like Sen. Sessions to support our
bill and hope that we will have consensus on this issue.”
Perhaps it's instructive to note that Sessions is a
Republican, like the three congressmen from San Diego who
wrote the House-passed Mount Soledad bill. Perhaps Hunter
wanted a fellow Republican, even if he is from Alabama, to
take the lead in the Senate. Perhaps Feinstein and Boxer
didn't appreciate that.
By the end of the day, Feinstein and Boxer apparently
concluded that Hunter's bill was as good as any they were
going to write, because they abandoned their effort and
endorsed Hunter's measure.
Which seemed to clear the way for Sessions to try –
once again – to bring the issue to a vote.
HOLD ON THERE
So it came as yet another surprise when a different
senator – or perhaps senators – objected to a vote.
Senators are allowed to conduct this maneuver anonymously,
and even Boxer and Feinstein claimed they could not
ascertain which lawmakers were holding up the vote, or for
This went on for days. The reason for the hold might
have been something as simple as a senator wanting time to
read the bill more closely. It might have been a bit more
complicated – such as the American Civil Liberties Union
working through some senator to derail the bill entirely.
In the end, the anonymous lawmaker(s) lifted the hold, and
the vote went through.
Seemingly swiftly. Seemingly decisively. But as we've
said, few things ever go that smoothly in politics.
Dana Wilkie is a Washington-based correspondent for Copley
News Service and a longtime observer of California
politics and social issues.