Dems chafe under Reid’s rules as well

Greg Nash

Democratic senators have been sidelined in legislative debates because of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) tight grip on amendments.

The lack of votes has become a liability for vulnerable Democratic incumbents from conservative states.

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Republicans have attacked Sens. Mark Begich (Alaska), Mark Pryor (Ark.) and other endangered Democrats for voting their party line consistently or lacking the power to force their leadership to take a vote on a controversial amendment.

Begich, who was elected in 2008, has never received a roll-call vote on an amendment he’s offered on the Senate floor. The last time Pryor got a roll-call vote on one of his amendments was in March 2010.

Former Sen. Olympia Snowe, a centrist Republican from Maine who served in the chamber from 1995 to 2013, called the inability of Begich and Pryor to get votes in the past four years “shocking.”

“It’s startling, frankly, to me as someone who had an entirely different experience in the Senate and in the House of Representatives,” she said. “Even as a freshman in the House of Representatives in the minority I was able to get a vote on an amendment and I was successful.”

Snowe, who served in the House from 1979 to 1995, will release a report Tuesday with former Senate leaders Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.) recommending ways to reform the procedures of the upper chamber.

Democratic Sens. Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) and Chris Coons (Del.), who were both elected in 2010, also have not ever received votes on amendments they offered on the floor. 

Sen. Michael Bennet (Colo.), the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, last received a roll-call floor vote on an amendment in March 2010. Adam Bozzi, a spokesman for Bennet, said in many cases his boss has not needed a floor vote because he’s worked with Republicans to develop bipartisan agreements that are part of larger measures.

Still, some senators are frustrated.

“I’ve never been in a less productive time in my life than I am right now, in the United States Senate,” Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who has not received roll-call vote on an amendment since June of last year, told Time magazine last week.

None of the freshman Democrats elected in 2012 have yet had a chance to get a vote on an amendment they offered on the Senate floor, although Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) did get a vote earlier this month on a stand-alone bill to reduce student loan rates.

Democratic senators used to have much more ability to shape legislation on the floor. In 2006 and 2007, the final two full years of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy’s (D-Mass.) career, he received roll-call votes on 11 different amendments.

The lack of opportunity to amend legislation is more of a problem for Democrats in tough races.

One of Begich’s Republican opponents, former state Attorney General Dan Sullivan, has slammed him for voting with President Obama and the Democratic leadership more than 90 percent of the time.

In Arkansas, American Crossroads, a GOP-allied advocacy group, launched a television ad this month hitting Pryor for voting for Obama’s agenda 90 percent of the time.

Steven S. Smith, a political scientist who studies the Senate at Washington University in St. Louis, said it’s tougher for Begich and Pryor to distinguish themselves from their party leaders because of limited opportunity to offer amendments.

“The effect of this for members of both parties is to limit the ability of an individual senator to tailor a floor record of offering amendments and voting that might distinguish them from the rest of their party,” he said. “That ends up being a problem for majority as well as minority party members.

As Congress has become more partisan in recent years, voters have become more inclined to vote on the basis of a candidate’s party label instead of the individual characteristics of the person running. This trend has coincided with the dwindling number of centrists, which could be bad news for Begich and Pryor.

Scholars say both sides are to blame for the lack of productivity in the Senate. They say Reid has limited amendments because Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) has broken the chamber’s traditional understanding that the minority party should be allowed a chance to shape legislation on the floor if they let bills reach final up-or-down votes.

“The context is the majority leader is usually dealing with minority obstruction,” said Smith. “The majority’s view is, quite reasonably, you’re going to demand votes on all your amendments, but then you won’t let the bill as amended come to a vote. What sense does that make?”

Reid sees little sense in subjecting his vulnerable colleagues to politically harmful votes on Republican amendments if the legislation will ultimately stall because of a GOP filibuster.

McConnell has promised if he is elected majority leader in a Republican-controlled Senate that he will allow members of both parties to offer amendments on the floor.

An aide to Begich argued that his boss has delivered results for Alaska even without getting floor votes.

His amendment to ban “Frankenfish” — farm-raised salmon genetically engineered for super-growth — passed the Senate by voice vote as part of last year’s non-binding budget resolution. Begich’s proposal to allow the Department of Agriculture to serve traditional Native Alaskan and American Indian foods was rolled into the farm bill, which became law earlier this year.

He also negotiated behind the scenes with managers of last year’s immigration reform bill to include language protecting Alaska seafood processors from new visa rules.

Lucy Speed, a spokeswoman for Pryor, noted the Senate has adopted many of her boss’s proposals on the floor with voice votes or via unanimous consent.

For example, the Senate in June of last year adopted by voice vote an amendment Pryor offered to immigration reform legislation that would promote the recruitment of former members of the military to serve in the Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agencies.

In May of 2013, the Senate adopted by unanimous consent a Pryor amendment to the Water Resources Development Act that directed the Environmental Protection Agency to change spill prevention rules for some farms.

But amendments adopted on the floor without votes are usually modest in scope and ambition because all senators present must agree to them.

“These days to get anything through it’s got to come in a fairly small package. There are no grand bargain amendments,” said Ross K. Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University.