House Enemy No. 1: The Senate’s Rules

Posted December 14, 2007 at 6:36pm

It isn’t often Democratic and GOP lawmakers find something to agree on in the typically hyper- partisan atmosphere of the House, but in the final days of the year, Members seem to have at least found common ground to commiserate over: the Senate.

Speaking on the House floor Thursday, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) couldn’t help but lament the Senate and rules that all but ensure a legislative backlog across the Capitol.

“The Senate has decided that they will let the minority rule,” Hoyer said, pausing from his discussion of the week’s schedule. “They did that when we were in the majority, and it was done when your party was in the majority. We have both discussed the problems that causes a body that can, in fact, allow the majority to rule.”

Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) responded with an unusual display of empathy: “I do know whoever is in the majority on this side has to spend a lot of time explaining why an apparent majority on the other side of the building doesn’t really become a majority on that side of the building.”

That exchange echoes the complaints, both public and private, of House lawmakers from both sides of the aisle in recent weeks, including calls by some Democrats for their Senate colleagues to upend their chamber’s cloture rule and reduce — or even eliminate — the 60-vote majority long-required to end debate and take action on legislation.

Even Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) questioned the Senate’s rules during an unscripted moment at the end of a press conference late last week.

“In the Senate, there is real obstructionism with the 60-vote majority. I don’t even know how it is constitutional, but I don’t have too much time to think about that,” Pelosi said.

House Rules Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) also criticized the Senate’s policies of allowing an individual lawmaker to block legislation with a hold.

She further disparaged the Senate for failing to approve standard conference committees in recent months, often forcing Congressional leaders into a “pingpong” strategy to finalize legislation — requiring each chamber to produce identical bills and barring amendments, rather than appointing conferees to hash out differences in the original bills.

“The biggest rules changes need to come in the Senate,” Slaughter said.

But House lawmakers holding out hope that 2008 will usher a new era of simple majority-rule in the Senate might find themselves disappointed.

Asked whether the Senate would pursue such changes in the second half of the 110th Congress, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) spokesman Jim Manley offered a succinct “No,” followed by a hearty chuckle.

Republican Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.), who has made ample use of the Senate’s rules since arriving from the House, similarly defended the chamber’s standards.

“Making law is a messy business. I think they need to live with it,” he said.

Despite the public indignation shown by House leaders, senior aides acknowledged that there is no formal push by the Democratic majority for their colleagues in the Senate to change course.

“It’s not about changing the rules, it’s about pushing for an agenda that meets America’s priorities and the best way to do that is to elect more Democrats to Congress,” said a Democratic leadership aide.

And despite the Speaker’s public trepidation over the constitutionality of the Senate’s super-majority rules, Senate Associate Historian Don Ritchie offered assurance Friday that there is no need for concern.

“The rules of the Senate are designed to enable the minority to have a greater voice,” Ritchie said, noting that while the Constitution requires the Senate to reach a supermajority for certain votes — to override a veto, expel a Member, approve a treaty, propose a Constitutional amendment or convict an executive branch official — the chamber is otherwise free to set its own rules.

In fact, the Senate has previously reduced the number of votes required to end debate in the chamber — and effectively curb any filibusters — decreasing the majority requirement in 1975 from two-thirds to the current three-fifths.

Although some Members proposed reducing the required votes to a simple majority at that time, Ritchie notes the effort ultimately failed.

“The thing is, in the Senate there’s just a lot of mechanisms for making you stop and think about things,” Ritchie said, noting that the constitution’s framers designed the Senate with that purpose. “It was a second body for second thoughts.”

Although Democratic lawmakers have accused the Senate’s Republican minority of abusing the chamber’s rules to derail the legislative agenda, Ritchie said that process has remained largely unchanged.

“It’s not so much that there’s been more filibusters, there’ve been more cloture motions,” Ritchie said. The filibuster is “sort of like the veto threat — it hangs over everything, always. The question is, when is it used?” he said.

While some House Democrats have privately criticized their Senate colleagues for not forcing Republican lawmakers to make good on their vows to filibuster legislation, such an action might not meet expectations.

“The fact of the matter is, all-night sessions [wear] out the majority must faster than the minority,” Ritchie said, noting that while the minority needs only a few Members on hand, the majority is required to keep 51 Senators on hand to establish a quorum. “It’s a very difficult process that has not tended to work in the past.”

“Nothing else that is on the agenda is going to get passed,” he added. “You have to be willing to sacrifice everything else for this particular thing that you’re fighting on.”

Still, at least one House lawmaker suggested the discrepancies in House and Senate schedules have less to do with the rules of either chamber, and more with the Members themselves.

“We’re out of phase electorally,” said House Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.). Frank said that with a 2006 election that favored Democrats and returned them to control of the House, but a Senate that remains comprised of Members elected during the conservative-leaning 2002 and 2004 election cycles, “What you really have is a House and a Senate representing different electorates.”

“If we have another in 2008 like in 2006, that gridlock will disappear,” he said.