‘Noble experiment’ draws delight, chagrin from Senate leaders

The Senate’s first attempt this year at legislating by regular order, on Thursday night, drew mixed reactions from Senate leaders charged with both moving difficult amendments and keeping order in the chamber.

Democrats, who control the Senate, have mostly operated this year on a closed amendment process, allowing votes on only a few select proposals that were generally brokered by party leaders. By considering a wide array of amendments on Thursday, the Senate veered toward an open, regular process whereby senators could freely attempt to bend the legislation without the permission of their leadership.

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The process of attempting to vote through more than two dozen proposals wore late into the night and at times caused Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to express frustration over slow progress. He eventually dubbed the process a “noble experiment,” borrowing a term often used to describe the American constitutional republic itself.

“This was a noble experiment and I am part of it,” Reid said. ”I want it to work very much, but it can't work without the cooperation of all senators.”

Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) decided late Thursday evening to throw the doors open to a cascade of amendments in order to push through an underlying appropriations package in time for the Senate to depart on a weeklong home-work period. Republicans, in particular, leapt at the opportunity to take roll call votes on pet proposals that have been blocked by the majority so far this year.  

The series of votes left the generally dignified upper chamber looking more like the House, with animated conversations taking place on the floor, and senators cracking jokes and holding votes open in order to whip up support for their proposals.

Reid, who spent much of the night observing the spectacle from Sen. Herb Kohl’s (D-Wis.) desk in the back of the chamber, at one point suggested that despite frustration, the carnivalesque atmosphere was reminiscent of better, more bipartisan times. 

“There has been tremendous progress made,” Reid said. “This is something for those of us who have been in the Senate awhile that brings back a lot of memories. This is the way we did things in the past. It is difficult, but it moves legislation. It has been inconvenient for everyone.”

But as it became clear that dozens of proposed amendments would not be disposed of by daybreak, Reid ordered senators to their desks to speed up the voting process. 

When Reid suggested that the votes could be delayed until Friday morning, he drew opposition from his Republican counterpart, who was also feeling nostalgic for a more cooperative era. 

 “In my time in the Senate, some of our best work has been done on Thursday night,” McConnell said. “Usually when we're passing bills around here, we're working on Thursdays into the evening and finishing them. It is my hope that we'll continue on that path and finish this bill tonight.”

The night’s proceedings provided some moments of levity. 

In another light exchange, McConnell interrupted Reid to make a point about how senators could work to speed up the process. 

“I just respectfully make one suggestion,” the minority leader said. “There are three options. We can stick on 10 minutes, we can voice vote or we can withdraw all, which would rapidly speed up the process.” 

Reid paused, drew in a breath and replied to a great deal of laughter, “Mr. President, I wish I would have thought of saying that."

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