Has Senate hit rock bottom?

Greg Nash

Rank-and-file senators are growing increasingly frustrated by the partisan warfare that on Thursday sunk another broadly popular bill, leaving the chamber with few accomplishments before the midterm election.

Republicans blame Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) for putting the Senate in a lockdown that has allowed the minority party to vote on only nine amendments since July.

ADVERTISEMENT
Democrats say Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has forced Reid’s strict handling of floor debates because he has exploited noncontroversial bills by trying to force vulnerable Democrats to vote on “gotcha” amendments designed to fuel TV attack ads.

“It is absolutely ridiculous that we have good bills that at the end of the day are not going forward,” said Sen. Kay Hagan (D), who has a tough reelection in North Carolina. 

But even some Democrats have chafed under Reid’s refusal to allow votes on GOP-sponsored amendments, which derailed an energy efficiency bill last week and a package of temporary tax cuts this week.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), who faces a competitive race, said Reid should have allowed amendments to the energy bill she sponsored with Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio).

“I think it’s very disappointing,” she said of the floor fight that swallowed her bill. “I think we should vote on amendments. I think that’s part of why we’re here.”

When asked if Reid has been overly strict in limiting amendments, Shaheen said, “I think we should allow amendments.”

Her energy bill floundered because Reid declined to let Republicans vote on four amendments they wanted to offer.

Instead, he proposed scheduling a vote on a stand-alone measure authorizing the Keystone XL pipeline, a top GOP priority, if Republicans allowed Shaheen-Portman to reach a final up-or-down vote.

Portman, however, split with McConnell over the decision to filibuster his energy bill, showing that both sides have qualms with their leader's hardball tactics. 

Portman was one of three Republicans, including Sens. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) and Susan Collins (Maine), who voted with Democrats to advance the energy bill, while the rest of the Senate GOP conference voted with McConnell to block it.

Senators have complained for months that the chamber, once dubbed “the most deliberative body in the world,” has become dysfunctional. The collapse of two modest bills with broad bipartisan support this month marked a new low in cooperation.

Reid lashed out at Republicans Thursday evening, mocking McConnell as the “Guardian of Gridlock.”

He accused former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown (R) of lobbying Republicans to block the Shaheen-Portman bill to deprive Shaheen of an election-year accomplishment. Brown has moved to New Hampshire in a bid to unseat her.

“I wonder who has called them today to tell them to kill this bill,” Reid said of the package extending a variety of expired tax cuts. “The Republicans voted against tax cuts.” 

McConnell accused Reid of destroying the Senate’s long tradition of open debate and argued the filibuster was meant to send a message to Democrats not to block Republican amendments.

“Today we have a Democratic majority that’s turned this body literally on its head. Instead of preserving the Senate’s prerogatives, they have systematically weakened or destroyed them altogether,” he said. “They have turned the Senate into a graveyard of good ideas.”

McConnell says he would allow more amendment votes if Republicans capture the Senate, and he becomes majority leader. 

The atmosphere has turned so acrid that lawmakers wonder if even the mildest bipartisan proposals can survive fights over amendments and Republican filibusters.

Hagan wondered after the vote whether her bipartisan Sport Act, which reforms hunting regulations and promotes better management of wildlife habitats, could make it through the Senate.

She accused McConnell of abusing the amendment process to score political points and noted that both the Shaheen-Portman energy bill and the tax bill included Republican-sponsored proposals before they reached the Senate floor.

Republicans say whether bills move or not depends entirely on whether Reid lets his vulnerable Democratic colleagues take tough votes on amendments.

“No self-respecting senator is just going to allow the Senate to operate in a way where one person decides what we’re voting on,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.).

Reid signaled Thursday evening that he might loosen his grip on the floor debate. He announced to colleagues that he would give Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah), the ranking Republican on the Finance Committee, a chance to work out an agreement on amendments.

Corker said Reid relented because Republicans took a stand. 

“He realizes that if he’s going to pass it, he’s got to have amendments,” he said.

He said Reid got the message but only “temporarily,” predicting the Senate would soon return to a stalemate.