Politics

The Senate at a Deliberative Crossroads

Health care debacle challenges unique traditions, process

Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune highlighted bipartisan work ongoing at the Commerce Committee. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The release of the Senate Republicans’ draft health care measure, coming on the heels of the demise of the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees, provoked a spasm of hard feelings in the chamber and questions about whether senators could restore its now-quaint reputation as the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body. 

“This is not the role model in my world, but I also understand that when the Democrats say, ‘We’re not going to vote for anything,’ that limits the options,” said Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican. “But, I would love to see a Senate that functions, in which all hundred senators have the opportunity to present ideas, amendments and take votes.”

When the health care bill ultimately gets called up, Democrats and Republicans alike will have opportunities for firing off amendments in the free-for-all that is the vote-a-rama. But the budget reconciliation process being used to advance the measure also gives a window into what the Senate would look like if it functioned more like the House.

A House majority can advance a legislative agenda to the floor for up-or-down votes through its lopsided advantage on the Rules Committee. Several senators worry that is where their own chamber is heading, with its traditions of minority power being diminished.

Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, a former House member, said he thought that through the health care exercise, “we may be seeing the Senate fundamentally changing before our eyes.”

The Connecticut Democrat conceded that both sides had used the “nuclear option” to change precedents to eliminate the need for supermajorities on nominations, but legislation should be a different matter.

“I’m not sure why I’m on the HELP Committee if the HELP Committee doesn’t have anything to do with a massive reordering of the entire health care system,” Murphy said, referring to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s decision to bring the health care measure directly to the floor without the benefit of even one public hearing.

Murphy added that he expected a recurrence later in the year with the anticipated GOP bid to overhaul the tax code through the same expedited reconciliation process.

“If they’re not going to use the committee process for health care, I doubt they’ll use it for tax reform,” he said.

Bipartisanship endures?

But Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune pointed to the work he has continued to do on a bipartisan basis at the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which he chairs, even during the process of the crafting of the GOP health care plan.

“I would hope it’s sort of an extraordinary circumstance,” the South Dakota Republican said of the health care debate, noting Democrats are particularly animated because it is their party’s signature domestic accomplishment of the last generation. 

“I don’t think this is necessarily predictive about what the future looks like,” Thune said. “There are a lot of bills that we move, you know, the committee that I chair, there’s a lot of activity over there that’s very bipartisan, and I hope that we see a lot more of that.”

As if on cue, Thune’s Commerce Committee late last week trumpeted the introduction of the Senate version of legislation that would reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration.

The bill was introduced by Thune with the backing of ranking Democrat Bill Nelson of Florida and Aviation Subcommittee leaders Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.

“From small rural airports to turbine manufacturers, aviation touches every corner of our state and country. It connects communities and businesses and employs hard-working people,” Cantwell said in a statement. “We must keep investing in airport transportation infrastructure to help our economy grow, support local business, and create more jobs.”

Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, one of four Republican senators who signed on to a statement released Thursday expressing concern about the contours of the Senate health care bill, later said he wants more information about its effect on health insurance premiums.

That same day, Johnson walked up behind Sen. Joe Manchin III while the West Virginia Democrat was speaking to reporters about health care, and with cameras rolling, Johnson insisted that senators do in fact get along.

“This is actually a very collegial place, if you concentrate on areas of agreement,” the Wisconsin Republican said.

Johnson, who said it would be more accurate to say he is “not a ‘yes’” on the health care measure, rather than a “no,” said perhaps the Republicans will need to pass their own partisan health care bill before the chamber can get to a different stage of cooperation.

“Maybe we’ll have to pass whatever this is, to the extent that this improves the situation, but it’s not going to fix the whole problem,” he said. “Maybe this is what has to happen. The Democrats had their partisan bill, Republicans are doing ours, and then we’ll sit down and start working in a bipartisan fashion to fix our health care system.”

Back to regular order

One sign of whether the health care dispute has infected other Senate business will come when the Senate Appropriations Committee and its dozen subcommittees attempt to mark up the fiscal 2018 spending bills — and if they do so with or without a predictably partisan budget resolution being adopted first.

“I’m anxious for negotiations to commence and conclude so that we can do 12 separate appropriations bills,” said Moran, chairman of the Military Construction-VA Appropriations Subcommittee. “It allows us to prioritize spending and make better decisions.”

But Murphy, the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations subcommittee responsible for the budget of the Capitol complex, was pessimistic about a return to regular order. He said he could not rule out a world in which the process of writing spending bills becomes more centralized in the leadership suites.

“I don’t know what the logical end of this massive consolidation of power is. You know, clearly you could have the appropriations process taken away from the committee, and from the subcommittee chairs,” Murphy said. “I don’t think you ever would have thought five years ago that the big rewrite of the health care system would happen without any committee process, so this could happen with appropriations too.”

As the Senate proceeds with the massive rewrite of the health insurance system without the benefit of public hearings or markups, such sentiment about other legislation becomes easier to imagine. 

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