Reid’s Move to Circumvent Lands Bill UC Angers Republicans

Posted February 8, 2008 at 4:32pm

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has circumvented a formal unanimous consent agreement to move a public lands bill, charging that Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) was using the deal to turn the bill into an election-year effort to score political points against Democrats.

Under the Dec. 19 UC, Reid agreed to allow Coburn to have five amendments to The National Forests, Parks, Public Land and Reclamation Projects Authorization Act of 2007 considered on the floor, after which the chamber would vote on the full bill. Coburn had blocked the bill for much of last year because of concerns over the legislation’s costs. The agreement did not specify which amendments would be allowed or what topics could be addressed by Coburn’s proposals, only that they be germane, according to floor transcripts found in the Congressional Record.

But what Reid did not know at the time was that Coburn planned to use one of his five amendment slots to insert language allowing national parks visitors to be armed. While Coburn and his staff, citing data showing increasing rates of violent crimes on national parks, insist the amendment is needed, it also would serve as something of poison pill, since Democrats almost certainly would want to avoid having a gun-rights fight during an election year.

In order to avoid the UC’s requirement that Coburn be allowed to propose five amendments, Reid on Friday reintroduced the legislation under a new bill number – meaning the measure is no longer technically subject to the UC agreement.

Reid spokesman Jim Manley acknowledged that the Majority Leader has declared the December UC null and void, but blamed what Democrats say is Coburn’s decision to politicize the bill for the agreement’s demise.

“Every unanimous consent requires both sides to negotiate in good faith. We entered into this agreement with Sen. Coburn with the understanding he was going to offer five amendments dealing with the underlying legislation,” Manley said. “He has now come back with seven amendments in a shallow and transparent attempt to load down this bipartisan package with amendments deigned solely to score cheap, and I emphasize cheap, political points.”

Coburn spokesman John Hart rejected any charges that the Oklahoma Republican negotiated in bad faith and said the content of the amendments was not discussed beyond the need for them to be germane to the bill.

“If Sen. Reid had an opinion on what amendments Dr. Coburn should offer, he should have considered that before he made the agreement,” Hart said. “Dr. Coburn isn’t responsible for the Majority Leader’s inability to communicate the kind of deal he would like.”

Hart said that in a conversation with Coburn on Thursday, Reid made clear he was backing out of the deal because of the political nature of a gun debate. “What Sen. Reid told Dr. Coburn was that he didn’t want to force his presidential and Senate candidates to cast a vote on the Second Amendment,” Hart said Friday.

Manley, however, denied that Reid mentioned the electoral implications of the gun vote in his conversation with Coburn.

Don Stewart, spokesman for Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), said his boss “feels strongly about defending the rights of his Conference and believes the package of bills will be considered under the UC agreement which accomodates Senator Coburn’s amendments.”

UC agreements are one of the core rules of the Senate and are used on a daily basis to keep the chamber from becoming bogged down in procedural votes and filibusters. Eric Ueland, chief of staff to former Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), warned that backing out of a UC could have major implications for Reid’s ability to do business in the Senate since much of the work is based on trust.

“In the Senate, at the end of the day you are only as good as your word. If Coburn hornswoggled Reid, then the remedy is not to break your word. It is to work harder so as not to get dickered again,” Ueland said.

Ueland also noted: “No matter their outlook on the merits of the amendment, all Senators should stand up for Sen. Coburn’s right to offer his amendment, because at some point in the future it may be their rights to offer amendments which are threatened.”