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McCaskill goes for laughs, then gets serious about Senate 'holds'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 23, 2010 - U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., played both ends of the political spectrum in less than 24 hours -- first as comedy relief at the Washington Press Club Foundation's annual congressional dinner on Wednesday night, then the next morning on the Senate floor as part of a group of 21 senators calling for a change in Senate rules.

McCaskill was the first signer of a letter co-signed by 19 fellow Democrats and independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont, in which they advocate "an end to rules that allow members to secretly block legislation and nominations," as McCaskill's staff put it. 

"It’s definitely something she’s fired up about, " said spokeswoman Laura Myron, referring to McCaskill's second floor speech against secret "holds" in less than a week.

On Tuesday, McCaskill touched off a stir when she and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-RI, took after the 80 secret GOP "holds'' on President Barack Obama's nominees by calling up dozens of them for Senate consideration. As her staff tells it, "Republicans objected repeatedly."

McCaskill has called for the Senate to enforce the 2007 rules that require the senator imposing a secret "hold" to identify him or herself within six days after a floor vote has been called on the affected nominee. The senator also is to write a letter explaining the hold, which is to be published in the Congressional Record.

However, such rules haven't been imposed, McCaskill complained, allowing "holds'' to remain in place for more than a year.

In the letter released Thursday, the group of allied senators said, "While we deeply respect and appreciate the importance of tradition in this institution, we believe the practice of the secret hold has no rightful place in the Senate or in an open and transparent democracy. When a member of the Senate wishes to hold legislation or a nomination, that senator owes this body and, more importantly, the American public a full explanation."

As for the Wednesday night's performance, McCaskill generally got good reviews for her role as the chief Democratic jokester at the dinner. U.S. Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., was the Republican joke-teller.

Courtesy of Politico and The Hill, here's a few of McCaskill's jokes:

--"My job tonight is to be like the Iceland volcano ... blow a lot of smoke and keep everyone from leaving when they want to."

-- She told of trying to explain in the early 1990s to her 4th-grade daughter about her job as a prosecutor in Kansas City. The daughter then wrote in her explanation to her class, "My mom is the hardest working prostitute in Kansas City."

-- Referring to Pence, McCaskill said, "Earlier this year Mike was under a lot of pressure to run for Evan Bayh's open Senate seat. ... Mike declined. ... Mike has ambitions that go far beyond being passed over for vice president."

McCaskill spokeswoman Myron said Thursday, "There’s a rumor going around that (McCaskill and Pence's performances) might be re-played on C-Span but we can’t find any confirmation that that is the case."

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.