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A small, conservative minority of the minority dominated the Senate amendment process during the 111th Congress, with Sen. Tom Coburn responsible for one of every eight amendment votes on the chamber floor.
The Oklahoma Republican forced 50 votes on amendments — winning only eight. He and eight others accounted for nearly half of all 389 roll-call votes on amendments over the past two years. The average for the entire 100-Member Senate was just less than four amendments per Senator; however, 22 Senators did not receive any floor votes on their proposals.
Republicans said the numbers show those who are willing to be workhorses and stake out the GOP’s positions, while Democrats said they were indicative of the political bent the minority took over the past two years.
Republicans often banded together to filibuster measures in the 111th because, they said, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid made unprecedented moves to bar all amendments from coming up on some bills. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) recently charged that the Nevada Democrat used the tactic, known as filling the amendment tree, a record 43 times.
But when GOP amendments were permitted, a Roll Call analysis shows, nine GOP Senators were the primary beneficiaries of their colleagues’ willingness to stand up for “minority rights.”
Rounding out the nine, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) accounted for 26 votes; Sen. Jim DeMint (S.C.) for 23; Sen. David Vitter (La.) for 23; Sen. John Thune (S.D.) for 19; Sen. John Ensign (Nev.) for 13; Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.) for 12; Sen. John Cornyn (Texas) for 11; and Minority Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.) for 11.
“When one of our guys’ right to amend is squashed, it’s generally a slap in the face of the whole caucus,” one Senate GOP aide explained. “Next time it could be your amendment.”
Despite grumbling about filling the amendment tree, Republicans accounted for more than three-quarters of all amendment votes in the 111th Congress. Republicans took full advantage of unlimited amendments during the 2009 budget debate and consideration of the 2010 health care reform reconciliation bill, and Reid permitted robust amendment debates on several major measures such as the financial regulatory overhaul bill this summer and the 2009 economic stimulus debate.
Even though only a select few benefited, Senate GOP aides said they haven’t heard any complaints from rank-and-file Members about the dominance of their colleagues.
The amenders-in-chief, meanwhile, crowed about their successes at putting Democrats on the record and satisfying their duty to their constituents.
“Dr. Coburn believes offering amendments is the right and responsibility of every Senator, not a special privilege doled out by the Majority Leader,” Coburn spokesman John Hart said. “He doesn’t accept the notion that one Senator’s amendments can, or should, box out anyone else. The tactic that sidelines amendments is filling the tree, not offering other amendments.”
DeMint spokesman Wesley Denton added that the South Carolinian believes it’s important to force issues that both Republicans and Democrats may be squeamish about.
“Senators may like to hide behind rhetorical support of certain bills, but they can’t hide from public votes that make it clear where they really stand,” Denton said. “Most Senators talk about earmark reform, but few were willing to actually make it a reality until they were forced to take a position in public. Similarly, every Senator talks about cutting wasteful spending and balancing the budget, but this year we’ll see who’s serious.”
One senior Senate Democratic aide said McConnell clearly has mismanaged the amendment process. “You’d think he’d want to spread the wealth a little bit. They’re not all safe,” the aide said. “It also goes to show how politically motivated they all are.”
Democrats have long argued that Coburn, DeMint, Vitter and other conservatives who have been fixtures on the Senate floor are merely trying to score political points or delay passage rather than improve the legislation.
And some amendments clearly seemed designed to make Democrats squeamish.
During the high-stakes health care reform reconciliation debate in March, Democrats had promised their House counterparts that they would adopt no amendments to the measure. But Republicans tested the majority’s willpower by offering amendments on gun rights, gay marriage and breast cancer screenings. Coburn, however, provided the most uncomfortable vote by offering a proposal that would have prohibited federal funds from paying for erectile dysfunction drugs for sex offenders.
At the time, one Senate Democratic aide called Coburn’s “Viagra” amendment “a cheap political stunt.”
However, McConnell spokesman Don Stewart indicated that the trend would not be changing anytime soon. “All Senate Republicans, and more important, their constituents, benefit when we have the opportunity to amend and improve legislation,” he said.