Reid wants a no-surprises Senate

Greg Nash

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) wants to decide what Senate floor amendments Republicans can offer to guard against “gotcha” votes that could cost Democrats their majority.  

Republicans complain the change is a departure from the traditions of the Senate, once dubbed the greatest deliberative body in the world, for the majority party to pick what members of the minority may debate and discuss.

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“In the old Senate, the majority leader didn't tell, A, the minority how many votes they could have, and, B, by the way, pick them for them,” Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) grumbled to reporters during a recent press conference. 

Republicans say Reid’s tight rein on the debate is especially galling because he won’t allow votes on germane amendments. Earlier this month, he rejected several GOP amendments to an energy efficiency bill that were all relevant to energy policy.

But now, Reid may bring a package of tax cuts favored by Republicans back to the Senate floor if GOP lawmakers first vet the amendments they want to offer to the bill with Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

“What I’ve said to my colleagues on the Republican side [is] I’d like to see their list and see if we have a sense of we’re going by early next week,” Wyden said after tax bill stalled on the floor. 

Reid said if Wyden can work out a deal with Republicans on amendments, he’ll move the bill again. Otherwise the bipartisan measure is likely dead until after the election. 

Democrats privately say the change is because don’t want any nasty political surprises, arguing McConnell is more interested in scoring political points against vulnerable Democratic incumbents than passing sensible reforms.

“Mitch McConnell is all about seizing power for himself,” said a Democratic senator who requested anonymity to speak frankly about the Republican leader. “He wants to offer amendments on anything related to taxes. That’s a lot of ground to cover.” 

Democrats worry McConnell could split their caucus by forcing votes on broad tax policy instead of the basket of expired niche tax provisions the pending bill addresses. 

Reid does not want to vote on a proposal to repeal Affordable Care Act’s medical device tax, even though the proposal has strong support in the Democratic caucus. That could put him and his colleagues on the slippery slope of reviewing all the tax increases in ObamaCare.

Former Sen. Olympia Snowe, a centrist Republican from Maine, said in her final years in the Senate, Reid went so far as to rewrite the amendments Republicans offered.

“Reid was redesigning Republican amendments. He not only decided which amendments would be offered by might rewrite them,” Snowe said in an interview.

Don Stewart, a senior aide to McConnell, confirmed Snowe’s account.

“I remember that. He hasn’t done it this time because he’s just not doing any amendments at all. But yeah, [he’ll say] ‘We’ll have this version of that idea or we’ll have that version of this idea,” he said.

The majority leader’s tight grip on the debate is transforming the Senate into a body more like the House, where the floor debate and amendment process is controlled by the Rules Committee, which carefully scripts out amendments.

Snowe said other leaders in the past have negotiated with their counterparts across the aisle on what amendments would receive votes but usually only after the body had already voted on a variety of proposals.

“When leaders are working through a lot of amendments, they will get together and say let’s bring this to a conclusion, This is now all done at the outset [of the debate],” she said.

She argues that refusing to let members of the minority party in the Senate offer amendments erodes the possibility of compromise and inevitably leads to the current stalemate. Now, Snowe said, the lack of collegiality in today’s Senate would make it unrecognizable to someone who served in it a decade ago.

Former Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), a columnist for The Hill, said Reid is destroying the Senate’s traditional role as a body of government that gives voice to the minority party simply because he wants to protect his vulnerable Democratic colleagues at all cost.

“The key to protecting the minority is preserving the ability to offer amendments free of interference of the majority. They’re willing to sacrifice the essence of our constitutional government so they don’t have take tough votes,” Gregg said of Democrats.

Longtime Democratic senators, however, say Reid is simply carrying on a tradition started by former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), who used to block Democratic amendments. 

“I remember Dole used to do that,” said former Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.). 

Conrad described Reid as a traditionalist who would prefer to allow free debate on the Senate floor but has had to tighten the reins because Republicans abuse their privileges to slow or block legislation.

“He would prefer, I’m sure to have a regular process,” said Conrad, suggesting the minority should use “reasonable restraint” in offering amendments.

McConnell stressed last week that he only wanted votes on four or five amendments germane to the energy bill. Democrats rejected his request because they already promised him a vote on the Keystone XL pipeline and claimed Republicans kept changing their demands.

Former Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) said Republicans have tried to pick amendments for Democrats in the past.

“I’ve served in the Senate when we had spurts of activity when amendments were offered at great length and I’ve served at times when amendments were allowed only when they were negotiated,” he said.

Dorgan  said the minority party often tries to expose vulnerable incumbents by forcing votes on amendments that could give ammunition to political attack ads.

“Both parties have their eye on what it means to have to cast votes on certain things and it’s not unusual that the parties are offering amendments that cause heartburn for people on the other side and they don’t want to vote on it,” he said.