An effort by Senate Republicans to modify the rules to make it easier to take up appropriation bills may already be doomed, given concerns among some conservative senators that the approach would not stop Democrats from blocking legislation.
A new six-page memo from the conservative Senate Steering Committee outlines an alternative approach focused not on changing rules, but on enforcing an existing, but rarely observed provision that limits senators to giving two speeches on a topic. The goal would be to reach a simple-majority vote on a motion to proceed to a spending bill without any deal-making along the way.
"It is important that the strategy adopted to overcome minority filibusters of the motion to proceed appropriations bills also increase the majority's leverage to pass those appropriations bills on the back end," says the memo, which was circulated among Senate offices Monday and obtained by Roll Call.
Republican senators are scheduled to meet Wednesday before departing for a bicameral retreat in Baltimore to discuss ways to make the Senate run more efficiently without curtailing the power of individual senators. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., has been spearheading the effort, saying that he has come to believe some modifications to the rules are needed to go along with better behavior. Among the changes is a proposal to prohibit filibusters on votes to bring an appropriations bill to the floor. Last year, Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev and his caucus imposed a blockade on moving spending measures to force budget negotiation, a strategy that proved successful.
A Senate Republican aide said some conservative members are concerned that eliminating procedural barriers to starting debate on the dozen regular spending bills might not result in the bills actually passing, particularly with priorities favored by Republicans.
That's because Democrats could still filibuster the measures and keep them from passing. In addition, the entire process could still be upended by amendments. The aide pointed to an ill-fated effort to pass the Transportation-HUD spending bill late last year even after an agreement between Democratic and Republican leadership on funding levels. In that case, a germane amendment from Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., regarding HUD benefits for Syrian refugees did not receive a vote and the bill was pulled back.
"For those who make a mockery of this process by saying we’re going to have regular order, we’re not going to have regular order," Paul said in a floor speech at the time.
A chief concern for conservatives is that any changes would need to advance through regular order, needing 67 senators to support them to overcome a filibuster. Another is that Sen. Charles E. Schumer, the New York Democrat who is expected to be the next Democratic leader, is involved in the effort.
On the fiscal 2017 spending battles at least, the Steering Committee memo argues the solution lies in trying to revive old rules, rather than write new ones.
"he strategy should increase the costs (both physical and political) on individual Democrats for obstructing the Senate's appropriations work. Doing so forces them to bear the burden of blocking consideration of specific appropriations bills," the memo says. "It also makes the minority's obstruction tangible to the American people, thereby increasing the public's awareness of the Democrats' efforts."
Without immediate rules changes, any deal to advance spending bills more quickly would require the support of Reid and his Democratic caucus. Conservatives were skeptical from the outset of talk of an agreement between Reid and Speaker Paul D. Ryan about processing appropriation bills in 2016, even though there are agreed upon top-line numbers.
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