GOP trying to chop down Reid's amendment tree

Greg Nash

Senate Republicans have deployed a new parliamentary tactic designed to end — or at least call attention to — the frequent Democratic ban on considering GOP amendments.

Republicans have tried it four times, without success. But GOP aides say Republicans are likely to keep trying, to remind the Senate its members are being denied the chance to amend legislation.

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GOP senators have been outraged over the inability to offer any amendments to big-ticket items like the budget deal and the National Defense Authorization Act.

"I can't remember … when there was a bill the size of the Defense authorization bill up, and nobody gets to offer amendments," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said in December.

In the Senate, the majority leader gets the first crack at filing amendments to legislation that comes before the body. When Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) calls up legislation, he frequently offers several minor or technical amendments to the bill right away.

That process is known as "filling the amendment tree," and it usually blocks Republicans from offering up their own proposals for changing the bill. Republicans say Reid has used this tactic much more often than other recent Senate leaders.

Four times in the last few weeks, Senate Republicans have tried a new way of attacking Reid's procedural move. Senate Budget Committee ranking member Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) developed the idea, and was the first to try it out in December.

During debate on the House-Senate budget agreement, Sessions made a motion to table Reid's filling of the amendment tree. He made that move to protest language in the budget deal that cut $6 billion in military pensions over the next decade, language that both parties have since said they would try to eliminate in some future bill.

"This motion will remove the filling of the tree, and it will allow the Senate to vote on this amendment to strike the military retiree pay cut, and other amendments, perhaps, but this amendment in particular," Sessions said. "I believe that is in the tradition of the Senate. I believe it is extremely important."

Sessions also confirmed with the Senate parliamentarian that passage of his motion to table Reid's filled up amendment tree would allow senators to offer their own amendments.

Predictably, the Senate rejected Sessions's tabling motion in a mostly party-line 46-54 vote, although Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), who faces a difficult reelection race this year, voted with Republicans.

Since December, three others have tried Sessions's tactic. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) tried it in December, followed by Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) earlier this week. Also this week, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) made a similar motion to table the filled amendment tree, and that attempt failed as well.

"I have an important amendment that I would like the Senate to debate and vote on," McConnell said before the vote. "The Reid motion to commit is currently blocking the consideration of those amendments."

While Republicans are 0-4 so far, a Senate aide said they would keep trying as a way of putting pressure on Democrats to defend their limits on amendments.

"We now have a tool to force Democrats to vote on specific Republican ideas, and the pressure will build each time they vote the wrong way," said a spokesman for Sessions on the Budget Committee. "For instance, every member of the majority except one effectively voted to cut veterans' pensions rather than cutting welfare for illegal immigrants. Sooner or later, they will realize it's easier to work with us than to continue shutting us out."

The new GOP tactic comes at a time when the failure to agree on amendments has become a typical and, many times, insurmountable obstacle to passing legislation in the Senate.

Senate Democrats unilaterally changed the chamber's rules on filibustering administration nominees last year, so majority votes could be held for all procedural motions related to those nominated to the judiciary or executive branches. The only exception is justices to the Supreme Court. 

That change doesn't affect legislation, but it deeply angered Republicans and has added to the tensions between the two parties.

Democrats themselves have admitted the Senate is not working well. The problem was made obvious this week, when the Senate failed to advance a bill extending emergency unemployment benefits, largely due to a fight over amendments.

In an effort to fix the problem, Democrats offered a possible compromise that Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) explained in a Tuesday floor speech. He said the minority party should be allowed to get votes on amendments, but then the minority should not block the ability of the Senate to hold a final passage vote.

"If friends on the other side of the aisle say, 'I want to offer my amendment, but unless it passes, I am going to vote to block the bill from coming up for an up or down vote,' that doesn't seem right," Schumer said.

But that plan seemed to fizzle when Reid said his offer to allow a "reasonable number of relevant amendments" included a condition that all amendments would need 60 votes to pass. McConnell said that idea was a nonstarter, as it ensured the failure of all GOP amendments.

"In other words, it's guaranteed to fix the result in such a way that doesn't give the minority a fair chance," he said.

Democrats insist Republicans are trying to make the argument about process because they are looking for reasons to oppose substance.

"Senate Republicans can't take yes for an answer," one Democratic aide said. "When offered the chance to vote on up to 10 Republican amendments to the unemployment insurance bill, Republicans came up with yet another excuse to filibuster. At some point, Senate Republican must stop coming up with phony process arguments."

For now, the Senate remains unable to move the unemployment bill, even though Reid has said he would try again after next week's break. This week, Reid was left with nothing but to close the debate by saying he hopes the Senate could somehow pass some jobless benefits bill.

"I would hope we could get that passed sometime," he said of a three-month extension. "If we cannot, there is still an effort, I am sure, out there someplace where we could find a way to work together to get these people the desperate help they need."