Reid Reopens Senate Debate

GOP Amendments in Vogue

Posted February 27, 2009 at 6:26pm

After two years of running the Senate floor with a highly partisan iron fist, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has thrown Republicans — and some of his own Members — for a loop this year by restoring free-wheeling debate to the venerated chamber.

Reid said last week that his about-face came as a result of the political fortunes that Democrats experienced in November, which handed them control of the White House and an expanded 58 seats in their Conference. That margin could jump to 59 seats depending on the outcome of the unresolved Minnesota Senate race.

“If you have the manpower that you didn’t have previously, you can change how you play the game,” Reid said in an interview Friday. “So, of course, I had to change my style. … It’s made it so I can change my lineup and change how I play the game.”

While the past two years were marked by a record number of GOP-led filibusters and Democratic attempts to shut Republicans out of debates, Reid has opened up the Senate floor to GOP and Democratic amendments on every bill but one this year.

The hope, of course, is that allowing more Republican amendments will foster the kind of bipartisan accord that Reid and President Barack Obama have said they want, particularly on legislation dealing with the country’s economic meltdown.

So far, the change has drawn praise from Republicans and trepidation from some Democrats, particularly as they begin to take votes on politically dicey amendments like a gun-rights measure that popped up last week.

“There are some Members who are a little bit bruised by the experience — who have never faced it,” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said of his fellow Democrats. “And there are others who are saying, ‘This is better.’ … I just had a nice debate on the floor on guns, on the fairness doctrine. Man, I felt like a Senator. It was amazing, you know, and I’m looking forward to more.”

Reid said it is pointless for Senate Democrats to try to avoid tough votes, even as he acknowledged that he — like former Senate Majority Leaders Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) — engaged in that practice in the 110th Congress when he was armed with a caucus of just 51 Democrats.

“I think people make a mistake trying to run from votes,” Reid said. “The Republicans started that … Trent Lott did it all the time, and then Frist perfected it, and some of that spilled over to when we were in charge. I think it’s a foolish way to go.”

Republicans said they welcomed the opportunity to finally offer their proposals — as well as force Democrats to vote on hot-button issues.

Toward the end of last year, conservative Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) had become fond of noting how many days had passed without a Republican amendment on the Senate floor. Until the Senate began debating an equal pay measure in January, Coburn estimates that 180 days passed with only one GOP amendment on the Senate floor.

Senate Republican Conference Vice Chairman John Thune (S.D.) said that Republicans are “happy” to be able to offer amendments but that Reid “knows he can win the votes. He doesn’t have to worry about losing a lot of these votes now.”

But Thune noted that GOP Senators were “shocked” when they actually won a few votes on the District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act last week.

Other Republicans said Reid’s turnabout reflects the pressure that Democrats are now under to deliver on bold legislative proposals given they now have commanding control of the legislative and executive branches.

“He never wanted to pass anything last year. He was just checking the box,” one senior Senate GOP aide said. “The game has changed now. Harry Reid can’t just check the box. He has to pass legislation.”

Plus, the aide said, “The price of being in the majority is you have to take a lot of crappy votes.”

Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) said Reid told Democrats early on that he wanted to set a new tone on the Senate floor.

“He wants the Senate to function the way it should,” Pryor said. “He’s basically encouraging us to reach out to Republicans and work with them with the realization that we’re not going to get everything we want.”

But Reid’s new governing style has provided few benefits for him so far, despite his hopes that it would foster bipartisanship.

Only three Republicans voted for the $787 billion economic stimulus measure last month, and a handful of Republicans forced Reid to use parliamentary maneuvers to overcome their objections to the nomination of Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and the D.C. voting measure.

That GOP pushback has caused concern for Reid, who penned a letter with other Senate Democratic leaders on Friday to Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), accusing Republicans of putting partisanship over policy — particularly during debate on the stimulus measure.

“We sincerely hope that Congressional Republicans’ resistance to the economic recovery package is not a preview of things to come,” Reid and his leadership team wrote. “Turning this economy around will demand all hands on deck. The mortgage crisis, the financial crisis, and the broader economic crisis are all interconnected, and we cannot successfully address any one of them without bipartisan support.”

But Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), who was one of three Republicans to vote for the stimulus, defended McConnell’s approach to the stimulus bill.

“To the degree that Sen. McConnell was representing the caucus, there was overwhelming opposition to the stimulus package,” she said.

She suggested that Reid and Obama would have to offer more than just votes on GOP amendments to get McConnell’s buy-in on major legislation.

“It all depends on how the president and … the Democratic leadership approaches him,” Snowe said.

She added that they need to give McConnell “openings to have the latitude to shape and to craft and to lead the caucus in a different direction.” On the stimulus, Snowe said Democrats should have involved McConnell in the process earlier and then might have gotten a slightly different result.

However, Senate Democrats said the vast majority of Republicans appear to have made a decision to not engage on many of the economic issues that they have placed on their agenda this year.

“Too many Republicans are making a gamble that the economy is not going to improve in time for the 2010 elections,” Reid spokesman Rodell Mollineau said. “And in times of economic crises, not only is it cynical, but it is counterproductive to any efforts to get this economy turned around.”

Still, Reid acknowledged that, as floor operations go, Republicans have been much more cooperative than they were last year.

In the 110th Congress, he said, “They knew how weak I was and how with the Senate having the rules that we have, that they could stop most everything we did.”

“They really have been much better. They’ve had no real filibusters on anything,” Reid added.

Pryor said it would take time for Republicans to fully embrace what Reid is trying to do.

“It’s a little bit of an issue right now where there have been hard feelings for a long time, and you can’t change that overnight,” Pryor said. “It doesn’t just go away. So there almost has to be a level of trust that has to be re-established between the two parties, and we’re in that process right now.”