WASHINGTON — Normally when senators preside over the Senate, they do little but direct traffic, showing little partiality or emotion as they allow their colleagues to yammer on at length.
So when Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, asked Sen. Mark Begich. D-Alaska, for additional time to keep talking about health care Thursday afternoon, it wasn't the kind of request usually denied in the polite Senate, where long-windedness is generally tolerated.
But Begich's response was unusual: "In my capacity as the senator from Alaska, I object."
Flummoxed, Cornyn retreated for a moment, then tried again: "Is it the intent of the presiding officer to prevent any senator from speaking on the floor on this important bill? I'm looking around and I don't see any other senator waiting to speak," the Texas Republican said, gesturing to the empty chamber. "I simply would like an explanation of the chair's ruling."
Although Begich may have given Cornyn flashbacks of former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens and his grumpy alter ego, the Hulk, the testy exchange wasn't personal. Cornyn's spokesman Kevin McLaughlin said they quickly figured out it was "obviously procedural."
It turns out the freshman Democrat from Alaska was acting under orders of Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the Senate majority leader, who said he had grown tired of what he deemed Republican delaying tactics.
Begich, who as a junior member of the Senate is required to preside over the chamber frequently to learn its rules, had been asked to limit everyone to 10-minute speeches to speed up proceedings. Another freshman, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., treated Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., much the same way Thursday.
Reid spokesman Rodell Mollineau said Democrats are fed up with what they see as Republican stall tactics -- including Wednesday's GOP call for a live reading of a 767-page amendment. The sponsor, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., had proposed a single-payer health care system in his amendment, which had no chance of passage. But until Sanders withdrew the amendment, its reading all but halted progress on the health care bill and other Senate proceedings.
So Reid ordered the presiding officers on Thursday to hold the senators speaking in the chamber to a 10-minute time limit -- despite the unspoken rules of the Senate that allow senators to jaw on as much as they want.
"You can usually get more time, the Senate's a pretty leisurely place," Mollineau said. "But time is of the essence, so 10 minutes is what you get."
Begich's spokeswoman, Julie Hasquet, said that he simply wanted to see one of his own priorities -- a defense spending bill -- come to the floor for a vote.
"Under the agreement that each speaker be given 10 minutes, Sen. Begich was showing frustration at what he perceives as continual efforts to delay," Hasquet said in an e-mail. "He would have tried to keep any speaker -- from either side of the aisle -- to the agreed-upon time limits."