Specter Criticizes Reid Over ‘Filling the Tree’

Posted June 9, 2008 at 6:28pm

Republican frustration with Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) use of Senate rules to outflank the minority bubbled to the surface Monday when Judiciary ranking member Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) sharply criticized Reid’s deployment of procedural tactics to head off Republican amendments to a litany of high-profile bills.

Known as “filling the tree,” the practice can refer to a variety of efforts by a lawmaker to use Senate rules “that are intended (at least in part) to limit the ability of other Senators to offer amendments,” according to a new Congressional Research Service report prepared for Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.).

Although technically not limited to the Majority Leader, it is typically the chamber’s leader who employs the tactic, since he enjoys preferential recognition and can file all the amendment motions possible on a bill or use some other tactic to control debate.

According to a separate CRS tally, Reid has used the tactic more than any other leader since at least 1985. While former Majority Leaders George Mitchell (D-Maine), Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) each “filled the tree” a total of nine times over the course of a two-year Senate session, so far in the 110th Congress, Reid has used the practice 13 times, and aides on both sides predict that number will continue to grow.

Specter, while acknowledging abuses of the practice by previous Republican leaders, accused Reid of attempting to stifle debate and warned the practice would corrode the Senate’s deliberative traditions. “Every time it is used, it totally undercuts the ability of the Senate to function as it traditionally has,” Specter said in a floor speech.

But Democrats defended Reid’s use of the tactic, accusing Republicans of repeatedly stalling bills or attempting to hijack the process for partisan gain.

“To paraphrase Shakespeare, the Republicans doth protest too much, methinks,” Reid spokesman Jim Manley quipped. He insisted Republicans are to blame for breakdowns in the legislative process.

“The deeper our economic ditch, the harder it is to climb out of — and we wouldn’t be anywhere near this position if Republicans had any interest whatsoever in legislating over the past seven years,” Manley said. “We have given them opportunity after opportunity to do something more than just pointing fingers to strengthen this economy. But they have balked at every turn, blocking bills to address the foreclosure crisis, record gas prices, our addiction to oil and rising unemployment.”

Manley said Reid’s decision to fill the amendment tree as often as he does has been driven by repeated GOP opposition to bills, noting that Democrats have had to hold 38 cloture votes on motions to proceed — including today’s vote on the Consumer-First Energy Act — by far the highest total in the last five sessions of Congress.

But Specter accused both Democrats and previous Republicans of using the tactic to avoid difficult political votes and in the process eroding the Senate’s tradition and ability to effectively function.

“The American people live under the illusion that we have a United States Senate,” Specter said. “The facts show that the Senate is realistically dysfunctional. It is on life support — perhaps even moribund.”

Specter said “a principal reason” for both parties’ use of the procedural device of filling the tree was to save the majority from taking tough votes on amendments crafted by the minority.

“That backfired on Republicans in the last Congress,” Specter said. But “more important than the partisanship and more important than the increased use by both Democratic and Republican Majority Leaders is the impact it has on this institution, and more importantly than that is the impact it has on the legislative process,” Specter warned.