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In an effort to jump-start action on a languishing Senate transportation bill, a frustrated Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid this evening set up a vote for Thursday on a Republican amendment that would allow companies and insurance providers to opt out of mandated birth control coverage for religious reasons.
“I don’t see what choice I have,” the Nevada Democrat said on the floor in reference to the proposal, which he believes is distracting the Senate from finishing work on the $109 billion, two-year surface transportation reauthorization.
Reid said there would also likely be some votes on other unrelated amendments, but he was critical of Republicans for insisting on votes on amendments not directly related to transportation issues, such as a proposal to greenlight the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline and an amendment to delay and alter boiler pollution regulations.
“I’ve agreed to do these unrelated amendments,” Reid said. “They are not productive, they are not germane, they are message amendments ... but we will do those.”
Nevertheless, he noted that efforts today to find a consensus with Senate Republicans on which amendments to vote on had been unsuccessful.
Reid, who said more than 100 amendments had been filed to the measure, threatened to file on the legislation in an effort to ensure the Senate could finish the work on the bill in the near future. But it was unclear whether he would have the votes, because Republicans chafe when Reid seeks to cut off debate and limit GOP opportunities to influence legislation.
He would need at least seven Republicans to vote with Democrats in order to reach the 60 votes needed to cut off debate.
Reid also referenced an effort by junior Senators at the beginning of last year to change the cloture rule in order to ensure more legislative output in the Senate. Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) did not support a change in Senate rules, and the effort has subsided.
But Reid appeared to regret the decision. He said tonight that he felt a little sheepish making his case to the presiding officer, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who was one of the young Senators supporting the rules change.
“I am almost embarrassed to be saying this in front of the presiding officer,” Reid said. “I say that because the presiding officer along with the junior Senator from New Mexico thought maybe we should change how this place operates.”
Reid added that he thought a gentlemen’s agreement reached last year between Democrats and Republicans to back down and not force the use of cloture would help move things along. But it hasn’t worked out as he had hoped.
“It hasn’t been better,” Reid said. “In fact, I am sorry to say, it’s worse.”
Under the agreement, Republicans were supposed to allow bills to come to the floor without procedural barriers, and Reid was supposed to allow Republican amendments instead of using a maneuver known as “filling the amendment tree” to block minority proposals. But it hasn’t worked out that way.
Reid last complained about the issue on the Senate floor in October when he charged Republicans had not held up their end of the bargain.