Reid to let Republicans offer amendments to fair pay bill

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has extended an Inaugural week olive branch to Republicans, suspending his practice of blocking their amendments on the chamber floor.

Reid has often used complex rules to prevent GOP senators from offering amendments that could muster enough support to undermine Democratic policies, incensing his colleagues on the other side of the aisle.

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But Reid has decided to eschew hardball floor tactics during Inauguration week, when President Obama has called on Democrats and Republicans to join together to solve the nation’s economic problems.

An aide to Reid said that the leader has stressed bipartisanship since Democrats captured the White House and picked up seven Senate seats in November.

“He has said he would like to move forward in a bipartisan way and would like to do it in a way to get legislation passed,” the aide said.

Republicans, however, are skeptical that Reid has all of a sudden developed a warm and fuzzy feeling for the GOP.

One Republican aide said that it would be awkward for Reid to be accused of trampling on the minority’s rights a day after Obama sounded lofty notes of hope, change and cooperation in a speech to millions of Americans.

“Given the approval rating of Congress, it appears that the majority leader has decided his views aren’t as popular as President Obama’s call for a free exchange of ideas to accomplish our shared goals,” said a senior GOP aide.

Congress had a 23 percent job approval rating in a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll.

More than 80 percent of Americans, by contrast, have given Obama high marks for the way he’s handled the presidential transition.

Since winning the election, Obama has taken care to reach out to Republicans. He named former Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) to his Cabinet and suggested devoting 40 percent of his economic stimulus package to tax cuts, an approached favored by the GOP.

He’s consulted Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the GOP presidential candidate, on his national security appointments and made an effort to forge an unprecedented working relationship with his formal rival.

Obama’s top economic advisers also met with Senate Republicans last week, and Obama himself has pledged to meet with them in the near future.

Reid exasperated Republicans during the 110th Congress by repeatedly blocking their amendments using an arcane tactic known as “filling the amendment tree,” in effect refusing to share with GOP colleagues the limited opportunities to propose legislative changes on the Senate floor.

Spurred on by members of his conference, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) has made Reid’s hoarding of amendment opportunities a top gripe.

“Too often in the previous Congress, legislation bypassed the committee process and was considered with no input from Republican senators,” McConnell wrote in a November letter to Reid signed by 42 GOP senators.

{mospagebreak}“Further, when those bills were considered on the floor and there were no opportunities for Republican senators to offer any amendments, millions of our constituents were denied the right to be heard.”

Republican senators discussed the issue at length at an all-day conference retreat two weeks ago.

“We’re going to be the respectful loyal opposition, offering suggestions and improvements as we see them, and expect to have an opportunity to offer our proposals on the floor,” McConnell said after the retreat.

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Reid blocked amendments on more bills in the 110th Congress than any previous majority leader, according to a historical review of the past 24 years by the Congressional Research Service.

Reid had filled the amendment tree on 14 bills between January 2007 and September 2008, the date of the report. Former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) blocked Democratic amendments on nine bills during the 109th Congress.

Reid’s Democratic predecessor, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), blocked amendments to only one bill in the 107th Congress.

Reid again denied Republicans a chance to offer amendments on the first bill to hit the floor this year, a public lands bill opposed by Senate conservatives.

The Democratic leader made a peace offering this week, however, by allowing Republicans a chance to amend the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, legislation that would overturn a Supreme Court decision restricting equal-pay lawsuits that created stark partisan divisions last year.

The goodwill gesture comes as Obama calls for more cooperation in government.

“On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord,” Obama said in his Inaugural address. “On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics.”

A version of the fair pay bill stalled in the Senate on a nearly party-line vote last year. Every Democrat voted to advance it, but Republicans voted en masse against them.

The legislation would overturn a Supreme Court ruling that employment-discrimination lawsuits must be filed within 180 days of when an employee first receives an unfairly low salary compared to co-workers of the same rank.

So far, Republican Sens. Arlen Specter (Pa.) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas) have indicated they plan to offer amendments to the pending bill.