A new, tougher version of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and his Democratic Conference has been on display the past few weeks. The question is: How long will it last and to what end?
Reid has recently been able to command unity from his rank and file on an obscure — but precedent-setting — procedural vote and on the principle that disaster aid should not be offset with cuts to other federal programs. But as he looks to score major political points this week on the president’s jobs bill, it remains to be seen whether Democrats will stand firm in the face of increasingly creative GOP floor tactics.
Last week, Reid and 50 other Democrats voted to overturn Senate precedent and effectively prohibit the minority from forcing procedural votes on amendments after a filibuster attempt has been defeated.
Reid threw down the hammer after Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) demanded a procedural vote on an amendment on farm dust regulations — one that had the potential to become the first amendment to clear a 67-vote post-cloture hurdle since 1941. Cloture is a process by which the Senate limits debate on a measure, thus averting a filibuster.
Reid retaliated by effectively nuking all post-cloture motions to suspend the rules for all time. And while he had initially offered to allow a vote on McConnell’s procedural motion to bring up the president’s jobs bill and six other such motions, Reid’s maneuver conveniently obliterated those votes as well.
The power play infuriated McConnell, who accused Reid of turning the Senate into the House. That may be a bit of hyperbole, as the filibuster and the 60-vote rule remain intact for now. But the same tactic — voting with a simple majority to overturn the ruling of the chair — could theoretically have far more sweeping consequences down the line on issues well beyond farm dust or political show votes on a jobs bill.
“It makes it a lot easier for the next majority to do it because there’s no moral authority to argue against it,” one senior GOP aide said.
But the tough move seemed in line with other hardball actions by Reid of late.
Earlier in the week, the Majority Leader “filled the tree” on the underlying China currency bill to block McConnell’s initial effort to force a vote on the president’s jobs bill — one that was sure to fail and split Democrats, several of whom oppose the assortment of tax hikes Obama originally proposed.
Reid won cloture, 62-38, on the China bill, splitting Republicans despite McConnell’s opposition. But Republicans warned there could be fallout the next time Reid tries to block all GOP amendments.
“Why would Republicans ever give him cloture on anything if he fills the tree again?” the GOP aide asked. Sixty votes are needed to invoke cloture.
The move by Reid also comes after he and his Conference hung tough on offsets to disaster relief last month, surprising even themselves. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said at the time, “We normally cave.”
Winning the disaster aid fight and shutting down the GOP on the China currency bill are, however, minor victories in the grand scheme of things — and likely have little resonance outside the Capitol grounds. There’s even a debate within Democratic circles over whether winning these small fights is worth the potential cost.
Reid acknowledged as much on the floor last week — noting that his own staff worried that eliminating post-cloture motions to suspend the rules could come back to hurt Democrats when they are in the minority.
But Reid clearly has grown increasingly frustrated by a Senate that has reached new levels of dysfunction, noting on the floor how he hoped a gentlemen’s agreement he reached with McConnell earlier this year to allow a more open process would bear fruit — and how he had spurned efforts by some of his younger Members to monkey with the filibuster itself.
That deal simply hasn’t worked, Reid suggested.
“When I try to have an open amendment process, it is a road to nowhere,” he said, citing small-business and economic development bills that the GOP blocked earlier this year under a torrent of unrelated amendments.
“This was not just about this bill,” a senior Democratic aide said. “This was a shot across the bow to Republicans who have been emptying the toolbox to block even the most bipartisan, job-creating, common-sense pieces of legislation.”
Another senior aide said the frustration among Democrats had been building all year. “We’re not going to jump through these hoops anymore. We’re not going to compromise and compromise and compromise in order to get nothing,” the aide said.
Republicans, however, say Democrats are trying to make them into the villain as part of a strategy to run against a do-nothing Congress.
“I don’t think they want to get things done,” the GOP aide said. “If your policies aren’t working, you’ve got to find somebody else to blame.”
Reid will face another big test as soon as today, with votes planned on the president’s jobs package — with the tax increases altered to suit Senate Democrats’ tastes by solely targeting millionaires.
But the caucus’s recent show of unity might not hold. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), for example, said last week he doesn’t support the jobs plan overall, complaining about the payroll tax cut as well as aid to states. Several others have expressed reservations about various pieces of the package, and it’s not clear Reid can hold a majority for the bill.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.