Minority gets fewer chances but more success under Dem Senate

Senate Republicans protest that the majority is stifling their ability to amend legislation. Senate Democrats maintain that the minority is contriving a distraction from their inclusive approach.

As the closing bell sounds on the first round of the 110th Congress, who’s right and who’s wrong? A comparison of Democratic control with Republican rule shows that while Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has allowed fewer votes on minority amendments than his GOP predecessors, the minority party has had more success on the floor under Democratic leadership.

The first 50 Senate votes of this session have brought 20 Republican amendments to the floor, eight of which have passed. The first 50 Senate votes of the 109th Congress, led by former Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), brought 34 Democratic amendments to the floor – but only one survived.

The power struggle over how assertive Reid will be as he wields his one-vote majority ended in a stalemate on Saturday. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and his conference awoke to a second straight week of headlines stating they had blocked debate on the war in Iraq. But Republicans have set a precedent by delaying three bills so far this year in their bid for minority rights.

“Senator Reid said he was going to run the Senate differently than how it was run in the past, and it’s fair to say that he is,” Reid spokesman Will Edgar said. “Republicans are getting a voice in the legislative process, a stark contrast to last year. … The way it has worked speaks for itself.”

But Reid has “filled the tree,” limiting Republicans’ power to offer amendments on the floor, on both the continuing resolution and last week’s nonbinding resolution criticizing the president’s Iraq policy. During the corresponding stretch of the 109th Congress, the Senate took up two bills (on class-action lawsuits and bankruptcy filings) that were open to amendment, as well as that year’s budget resolution.

Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, contends that minority amendments faced a higher hurdle under Frist’s leadership.

“In terms of success, having a 51-49 Senate is different from having a 55-45 Senate,” Ornstein said. “Just in the course of things, you’re likely to see more amendments get accepted when the margin’s more close, and it doesn’t take many defections to make it happen.”

Yet a study of the last transition from Republican to Democratic control shows a similar pattern: fewer opportunities but more success overall for minority amendments under Democrats. That happened in mid-2001, when then-Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.) defected from the GOP.

At the start of the 107th Congress, when Vice President Dick Cheney was all that kept the Senate in Republican hands, 20 minority-party amendments came to the floor during the first 50 votes. Six of those amendments passed.

When Congress convened in 2002 with a Democratic majority, 13 of the first 50 votes were on Republican amendments, and seven minority proposals were successful.

One leading critic of filling the tree is Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who voted for cloture on the Democratic Iraq resolution over the weekend but vowed to pursue further checks on what he described as “majority abuse.” In fact, Specter issued a charge during last week’s procedural jostling that is bound to unsettle the upper chamber: Limited amendments bring the Senate closer to the House.

“The House has rules which we wouldn’t want,” Specter said on the floor, “where the Rules Committee goes off and comes back and limits what the House … can do. Sometimes that is despotism, and between anarchy and despotism, it is a fairly tough choice.”

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), the former president pro tem, echoed Specter late last week in floor remarks of his own, urging Republicans to consider their parliamentary rights.

“This is not a rubber stamp for the House,” Stevens said. “That is what we will be if we follow the intention of the majority leader now.”

Specter has proposed a bill to bar further tree-filling attempts. But that measure so far has snagged only one co-sponsor, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). The bill may not even be necessary, as Reid is likely to cut down on amendment-limiting bids in the future. He faces growing pressure to back up his stated intention to follow “the Golden Rule.”

“My guess is [Democrats] aren’t going to be able to keep filling the tree partly because they promised a more open body,” Ornstein said. “What’s going to happen here is that Democrats don’t have the same sort of culture that breeds party discipline.”

The vote counts on minority-party amendments throw that cultural difference into sharp relief. Eight of the 20 Republican amendments on the floor so far this year have received more than 5 Democratic votes, while only four of the Democratic amendments that opened the 109th Congress snared the same level of GOP support.