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Roll Call

GOP Promises New, Improved Senate

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Republicans say if they win control of the Senate this fall, Mitch McConnell would open up the chamber’s amendment process in his position as Majority Leader.

It may be wishful thinking, but Republican Senators predict a President Mitt Romney and a Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would usher in a new era of productivity for their famously sclerotic chamber.

It’s no secret Senators in both parties are frustrated with this Congress’ epic dysfunction. While Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) casts blame on the GOP and Grover Norquist and eyes reforms to the filibuster rule, Republicans instead suggest that a new era of openness, and more engaged leadership from the White House, could unclog the chamber if they prevail in November.

McConnell ripped the way Reid has run the Senate in an interview Monday on Sean Hannity’s radio show. “He’s already kind of turned the Senate Majority Leader’s office into, you know, an office for a dictator,” the Kentucky Republican said.

Republicans point to Romney’s ability to work with Democrats when he was governor of Massachusetts and say McConnell has told them that he will open up the amendment process and reinvigorate committees so all Senators have their say — a promise echoed by Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) before the 2010 elections regarding how the House would function under GOP rule. Republicans have also committed to passing a budget resolution, which would enable them to use reconciliation rules to bypass filibusters on budget-related matters.

“We’ve already had a lot of discussions as a Conference,” Sen. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) said in regard to life in the majority. She said Republicans would not repeat Reid’s penchant for shutting down the amendment process or avoiding passing a budget resolution.

“I’ve heard from Leader McConnell that if he is blessed to be the Majority Leader of the Senate, that he intends to let the Senate operate in the way it was intended to operate. He has been very clear with our Conference about that,” she said.

That means having a willingness to take repeated tough votes on Democratic amendments.

“This problem of moving a bill wouldn’t be a problem if you had an appropriations process and a budget process and just allowed amendments,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), Republican Conference vice chairman. “Part of the price of being in the Senate is supposed to be that you take votes that you’d prefer not to take. ... The problem is not the rules of the Senate. The problem is the Senate is not being allowed to be the Senate.”

Ayotte said McConnell would have a revolt on his hands if he acted the way Reid has.

“If we were in charge and we acted the same way, I would stand up to my own leadership to say that’s not the way the Senate should be conducted,” she said.

Of course, that might sound Pollyanna-ish if Senate Democrats newly in the minority take their revenge on a filibuster-happy GOP by employing tough tactics of their own — or if McConnell can’t keep his Conference on the same page.

Republicans acknowledge they could have at best a slim majority and will still need cooperation from Democrats for most legislation. And just as Reid has at times struggled to keep his slim majority on the same page, McConnell would have to negotiate between a small but committed tea party wing and an emerging group of GOP Senators eyeing grand compromise with Democrats.

But Republicans expect that Romney will provide leadership and spend more time focusing on Senate relationships than Obama.

“The president has been very hands-off,” Ayotte said, in what is a common refrain from Republican Senators who have heard little directly from the commander in chief during the past year.

Republicans are also eager to get their hands on gavels again, and none would be more important than the one that would be wielded by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who expects to chair the Finance Committee and hopes to write a tax reform bill.

Although he has played the part of partisan attack dog as he fended off a spirited primary challenge this year from a tea party candidate, Hatch has a long history of getting bills signed into law, and he already sometimes accidentally calls himself “chairman.”

“Freudian slip,” he quipped last week in a hallway interview.

Hatch sees Romney as a key to breaking the Senate logjam, pointing to his experience turning around the Salt Lake City Olympics and his time in Massachusetts.

“The same kind of intense, really dynamic ability will be used to turn this country around,” Hatch said.

Hatch acknowledges it won’t be easy. “Let’s face it, both sides are polarized right now,” he said.

Democrats dismiss the GOP’s complaints and pledges.

“This is like the monkey wrench telling the gears how to work more efficiently,” Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson said. “The most productive thing Republicans could do is end the record-breaking run of obstruction, delay and gridlock that has defined Sen. McConnell’s legacy and put the interests of the middle class far behind his ‘single most important’ goal of defeating President [Barack] Obama.”

Reid has been locked in a pitched public battle with McConnell over who is to blame for the state of the Senate. Reid blames McConnell and company for engaging in filibuster-by-amendment by offering unrelated items to Democratic legislation. McConnell and the Republicans complain Reid has stifled their input by repeatedly blocking GOP amendments and filling the amendment tree.

Blunt, however, said Reid hasn’t used all of the tools available to him to get the Senate to act.

“There are a couple of rules in the Senate. One is mutual consent. And the other one is exhaustion. And it’s 3:25 on Thursday afternoon and everybody’s leaving,” he said.

Still, Blunt predicted, the GOP would have to use reconciliation to get much of its agenda accomplished, noting that it isn’t going to get to 60 votes any time soon.

“It’s an important tool,” he said. “It’s one that we would have to use. ... The budget for us becomes the key to the kingdom in terms of governing.”

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.

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