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Are the Senate Budget Rules Working?

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Hoeven won a symbolic victory when an amendment he offered supporting construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline got 62 votes.

“Its overdue, we need to be talking about a budget,” Murkowski said.

The appropriations process is also spelled out in the budget law, which appropriators may be reluctant to change for fear of losing jurisdiction.

“You will have people say, ‘Look I brought this up on the budget resolution, I got 74 votes for it, it’s clear that there is momentum, I think it’s time to move it,’” Murkowski said. “I think it does act as something that can give signals, something that can give a level of support out there. So I think it’s good.”

As with the pipeline, the Senate gave overwhelming support for an amendment that mimicked a bill that would allow states to collect sales taxes on Internet purchases. That measure received 75 “yes” votes, enough to override a presidential veto.

Steven S. Smith, a Senate procedural scholar at Washington University in St. Louis, said the process is adequate, but limits on amendments could improve it.

“The Budget Act’s limit on debate allows a majority to act in exchange for an open-ended amendment process,” Smith said. “Some reasonable limits on the number of amendments may be desirable to allow a majority to act, but, on balance, this seems better than the regular order in the Senate, which is seldom regular.”

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., chairman of Republican Conference, said he thinks it’s not an effective process and should be reformed.

“We need budget process reform desperately,” Thune said. “It would be nice in the context of what we are doing here [that] we would do something about that.”

Thune called the budget rules “completely antiquated” and pointed to growing support for a biennial budget, which has been pushed recently by Sens. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.

“Biennial budgeting gives us a better, more responsible way to address our debt and deficits by making our budget process smarter and more efficient,” Shaheen said in a statement after a Friday test vote on their proposal demonstrated the support of 68 senators.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., both voted in favor of the amendment, while Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., and Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., were among those voting against it.

Reid recently said the idea deserved consideration by the Senate.

Richard Arenberg, who served in senior congressional staff positions for 34 years as an aide to Majority Leader George Mitchell, D-Maine, and Sens. Paul Tsongas, D-Mass., and Carl Levin, D-Mich., also doesn’t think it’s a useful process.

In “Defending the Filibuster,” a recent book by Arenberg and former Senate Parliamentarian Robert Dove, the authors “call for the Senate to address the ‘vote-a-rama’ so that amendments can be seriously considered and voted upon. The current spectacle demeans the Senate’s process of debate and consideration,” Arenberg said.

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