Republican senators on the 2016 ballot left the Capitol last week without quite as many accomplishments to tout as they would have hoped.
They blamed obstructionism led by Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada for their bills not getting through in the final days of the pre-election session. And they engaged in election year objection theater to make their point.
The Senate’s often laborious process for moving legislation through regular order means that much of its business must be conducted by unanimous consent. While it is not unusual for a single senator to hold up a bill that is being fast-tracked, the hold does not usually spill onto the Senate floor in the form of a procedural confrontation.
But in the final weeks before the election, frustrated Republicans trying to swiftly pass their bills faced Democratic opposition. So they took their case to the floor, causing Reid to publicly object to passing the bills by unanimous consent.
His reasons for blocking the proposals included a desire for hearings on the bills, lengthy recesses, and inaction on President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Judge Merrick Garland.
“It’s sad,” said Sen. Rob Portman after he attempted to pass his bill that would have provided for liability protection under the national search and rescue response system. “It’s pathetic we can’t do simple things like that because someone’s up for re-election. I actually offered to give him the bill. I said, ‘Put your name on it.’”
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said in response to a question from Portman about the legislation at a Sept. 27 hearing that the Federal Emergency Management Agency was supportive of the bill.
Portman was among a handful of other GOP incumbents who tried to get their legislation across the finish line. On Sept. 22, Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Patrick J. Toomey asked that his bill relating to animal cruelty be passed. Reid took to the floor to say the bill did not have a hearing.
“We’re happy to consider legislation, all kinds of legislation,” Reid said. “But to pick and choose what they’re going to do, leaving volumes of work undone here in the Senate, volumes of work undone, is something that is incredulous.”
Reid asked Toomey to modify his request so that passage would occur immediately after a vote to confirm Garland, which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell objected to.
“We all know what’s going on here,” Toomey said, accusing Reid of putting forth a “completely partisan-driven agenda.”
Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson also attempted to advance his bill allowing terminally ill patients to try experimental solutions. Reid said he was sympathetic to the bill, but said the opponents have not been given the chance to publicly make their arguments. He again brought up Garland, and objected to it passing.
Johnson’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee staff on Sept. 30 circulated local news clips from Wisconsin media outlets that wrote about Reid’s objection.
Indiana Republican Sen. Dan Coats, who is retiring this year, then came to the floor to defend Johnson. Coats said Reid was essentially saying, “We’re not going to give that to you because we know you’re in a tight race.”
Reid also blocked Commerce Chairman John Thune’s bill relating to broadband access, though The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report/Roll Call rates the South Dakota Republican’s re-election bid as Safe Republican.
Reid’s main objection was over the nomination of Jessica Rosenworcel to stay on as a commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission.
That’s part of a longstanding feud between Reid and the GOP. He argues that Republicans have gone back on a gentleman’s agreement that leaders would move her confirmation forward. Michael O’Rielly, a Republican, was confirmed to serve on the FCC without being paired with a Democrat, and it remains to be seen if the Rosenworcel situation will be resolved.
One exception to the blockade was a bill pushed by Iowa Republican Sen. Charles E. Grassley.
That measure is known as the Survivor’s Bill of Rights. The bill passed the House, and Grassley attempted to fast track it through the Senate, but the GOP senator said Reid originally blocked it from moving forward.
Even though Reid relented, Grassley took to the floor to chide Reid over the blockade.
“If you want to know what’s really going on, it’s that the Democratic leader is using political gamesmanship to hold up noncontroversial as well as bipartisan legislation, mostly by Republican members who are up for re-election this year,” Grassley said.
So why did Reid relent on Grassley’s bill? Potentially because the bill mirrored legislation that New Hampshire Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen introduced in February, known as the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Rights Act. The bill was renamed in the House.
Reid said on the floor that Grassley “took credit for a bill that was Sen. Shaheen’s bill. It was her bill. He took it, put his name on it.”
And another Thune-backed bill did get through the Senate without any such objections. That’s a measure designed to keep the U.S. Olympic athletes from having to pay federal income taxes on their medals.
Of course, that one was introduced by Thune alongside New York Democratic Sen. Charles E. Schumer, the man on track to be the next Senate Democratic leader.