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Nearly three weeks after the Senate was gaveled into session, the chamber remains virtually frozen as a result of unresolved disputes over proposals to change Senate rules and the ratios of committees.
The limbo is, in part, on purpose.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid used a procedural trick that allows him to hold open the first legislative day of the session until the Senate returns on Tuesday.
The extra time has allowed the Nevada Democrat and other leaders to try to negotiate with a group of mostly junior Democratic Members who want to alter the Senate filibuster rules and make changes on other provisions that have been used to slow the debate by the minority.
One Democratic leadership aide said the difference of opinion on whether the rules need to be changed must be addressed before the Senate is able to move on to anything else.
At the same time, Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) inability to come to an agreement over the committee ratios has stalled many panels from hiring staff and otherwise preparing for the legislative year.
“Those concerns are on both sides,” the Democratic leadership aide said, explaining that leaders are advocating both for the most positions possible for their respective members and for fair ratios.
But senior Republican aides said McConnell had sent back Reid’s initial offer with his counteroffer more than a week ago and that the holdup was squarely in Reid’s office.
But while Senate leaders continue to haggle over details, some Senators — particularly Republicans beginning their first term who have yet to receive committee assignments — are starting to become restless and say the long delay is starting to impede their ability to prepare for the session.
Aides to several freshman Senators were unwilling to talk on the record about committee requests because of the fear that they would not receive their top choices, but aides confirmed the frustration is widespread.
“While the Republican-led House has already passed critical health care repeal legislation and is holding hearings and setting priorities, 14 new Republican Senators are still waiting on Harry Reid to deliberate on allowing them to participate in the world’s greatest deliberative body,” one Senate GOP aide said.
“For a number of Members who have spent time in the House it is emblematic of a slower pace in the Senate,” a second GOP aide said.
A third Republican aide said offices have been unable to hire policy staffers because of the uncertainty surrounding the committee assignments.
Several sources familiar with the back and forth between the leaders said the ratios haven’t been released in part because Reid has been negotiating with more junior members — specifically members of the classes of 2006 and 2008 — many of whom have argued for allowing newer members to play a larger role in a Democratic Conference that has a strict seniority system.
“He doesn’t want to cut people,” said one Republican aide frustrated with the lack of action. “Reid doesn’t want to say no.”
Several freshman Republicans hope McConnell will adopt a similar view since a handful of the newly elected Senators have requested spots on the prestigious Appropriations Committee.
At least one freshman Republican is likely to serve on the Appropriations Committee. McConnell announced at a rally last year he would appoint then-Gov. John Hoeven to the appropriations post if the North Dakotan won his Senate bid.
Several aides with knowledge of the negotiations indicated the ratios issue could be resolved by the end of the week.
Frustration with the lethargic pace hasn’t touched every corner of the Capitol.
One Democratic aide noted that the extra time has given Democrats an opportunity to criticize House Republicans, while allowing them to spend much-needed time with their constituents back home.
“It’s a smart move to have Members go home for two weeks,” the aide said, noting that since the GOP-led House will continue to send the Senate bills that Reid will not take up, very little substantive legislation will get done.
“This is going to be a year of wrangling, not legislating,” the aide added.