In Senate, Flip-flops Come Easy for Both Parties

Posted February 5, 2007 at 6:43pm

Just as Republicans did in 1995, Democrats took over Congress this year pledging to change the way that Washington, D.C., works. But listening to debate on the Senate floor over the past month, it’s clear that no matter who runs the place, the script is largely the same.

Consider this scenario: The Senate Majority Leader takes to the floor decrying the death of an ethics and lobbying reform bill, blaming the minority party for insisting on an amendment that is not germane to the underlying measure.

“This amendment has nothing to do with lobbying reform or ethics reform of this body — something that is important, something that is the business of the Senate right now on the floor,” the Majority Leader said. He added, “We had a totally unrelated amendment injected, I believe, for partisan purposes.”

That may sound a lot like what Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said during debate on a lobbying and ethics bill two weeks ago when Republicans demanded a vote on an amendment to give the president limited line-item veto authority.

But the quote is actually from former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) on March 8, 2006, when — during debate on the exact same ethics and lobbying bill — Democrats insisted on a vote on an amendment to stop a Middle Eastern-owned company from taking over management of many of the nation’s ports.

While Frist pulled the bill to avoid a vote on the ports issue, Reid negotiated with Republicans to postpone the line-item veto debate. But Reid’s rhetoric was no less accusatory.

“They hate this bill, and this is their excuse to kill it,” Reid said at a press conference Jan. 18.

It seems that no matter who is in the majority in the Senate, the ruling party bemoans the “obstructionism” of the minority, while the minority bristles at the majority’s efforts to limit the number of amendments and debate time.

The irony of this sudden and wholesale shift in rhetoric hasn’t been completely lost on Senators of both parties, even as they swear they are doing things slightly differently than their predecessors.

“We sent them all our scripts, and they sent us all of theirs,” joked Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), acknowledging that Democrats have adopted the same stances once held by Republicans on the issue of how many and what amendments should be offered to bills.

But he still defended the new majority, saying, “I like to think we are taking a more reasonable approach. We want to give them time to amend without allowing them to obstruct.”

Noting that Senate Democrats pulled the same stunt last year on the lobbying and ethics bill, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) defended his party’s adoption of the standard minority script. “In fairness to Senate Republicans, to portray an effort to get votes on this bill as something unusual is truly astonishing,” he said at the press conference.

Still, the two parties were parroting their predecessors again last week during debate on the minimum-wage bill.

Sens. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) complained Jan. 30 on the Senate floor that Republicans were dragging out debate on the bill and that the chamber had been debating it for seven days, or as Dorgan noted, “some long while.”

It’s a refrain Republicans often struck in the past 12 years — counting every day that a bill technically has been up for debate on the Senate floor, even if some of those days passed in silent quorum calls. But now, by their own admission, they’re using minority math.

“The minority will always count the days on a bill as those days we are allowed to vote. We only voted three out of seven,” Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) said on the Senate floor that same day. “We will insist we get votes on amendments as we proceed through this bill and other bills.”

For the people who have to record what the parties are saying about each other, it has been a little surreal.

“It’s hard for me to keep a straight face,” one veteran Capitol Hill journalist said of listening to Republicans complain about the very practices they just months ago inflicted on Democrats.

Even aides who have to deal with the press acknowledge that their complaints are being ignored in large part.

“The arguments about unfairness mostly fall on deaf ears because Republicans had no problem running over Democrats when they were in the majority,” said one GOP communications staffer.

Behind it all is a deep distrust between the parties about each other’s motives for doing anything on the Senate floor.

“When Democrats were in the minority and were opposing things, we made no bones about it. We said, ‘We’re blocking this and this is why,’” said one senior Senate Democratic aide. “But the Republicans are being disingenuous. … They don’t want to vote for [the minimum-wage increase]. They do want to stall it.”

Republicans, however, charged that the old Democratic minority actually wanted to kill legislation. The new GOP minority just wants to make it better.

“They did a lot of obstruction of getting things done,” said Steering Committee Chairman Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), the author of several amendments Democrats have sought to avoid voting on this year. “But we’ve talked a lot in [the Republican] Conference about how not to do something just to obstruct, but to try to get some substantive changes through.”

That sentiment was echoed by Chief Deputy Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.), who charged that Republicans filed motions to shut off debate on bills only 47 times during the entire 109th Congress, while Reid already has filed cloture eight times in four weeks.

“So far they’re on a pace that totally eclipses us,” Thune said. “We’re simply asking for our prerogatives to offer amendments.”

Still, if you ask DeMint about his ability to exercise his prerogatives, he estimates that things are slightly better for him given the minority’s historic insistence on offering amendments.

“It’s not a bad role. I’ve been able to get more amendments up and some passed than I did when I was in the majority,” DeMint said. “So far, I like the role.”

And Republicans continued to play their role Monday, causing Reid to grouse about GOP refusals to vote on a nonbinding Iraq resolution.

“Their excuse?” Reid asked. “A feeble claim that they haven’t been guaranteed a vote on alternative amendments and resolutions.”