Majority Ready for a Long Year

Posted June 24, 2009 at 6:47pm

With Republicans attempting to throw roadblocks in front of almost every piece of Senate business these days, Democratic leaders say they are willing to keep the chamber in session into late fall if necessary to complete their ambitious agenda.

Majority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) indicated Wednesday that Democrats are committed to finishing health care reform, a climate change bill, Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court, an immigration bill, financial regulatory reform and 12 regular appropriations bills before year’s end.

“If we are making progress moving these forward, we will stay here until we get them done,— Durbin said.

He added that the August recess could be postponed as well if Republicans use delaying tactics on key issues in July.

“We’re going to finish these. I mean, this is a once-in-a-political-lifetime opportunity— on health care and climate change, in particular, Durbin said.

Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) agreed, saying she was willing to stay to the end of the year in order to pass a bill that would implement a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions — a key component of the Democrats’ plan to address global warming.

“I’m here to work, so I don’t care if it’s done September, October, November, December,— she said. “We’ve got to get our work done.—

Though both chambers traditionally set target adjournment dates for sometime in October, the Senate Democrats have not posted theirs this year.

Democrats said this week that they have been stunned by GOP objections to moving largely noncontroversial, bipartisan items such as a travel promotion bill and the appropriations bill that funds Congress.

On Wednesday, Democrats, with a handful of Republicans, broke an attempted GOP-led filibuster of a lower-level State Department nominee. But aides said they do not believe they will be able to actually confirm Harold Koh to be State’s legal counsel until late today because Republicans are objecting to a proposal to move on him more quickly.

Republicans said they are not necessarily trying to stop Democrats from passing their agenda — and so far they haven’t, considering the GOP has prevailed on just two of 18 attempted filibusters this year.

“That’s the narrative they want to play out: Republicans are trying to delay and obstruct,’— Republican Conference Vice Chairman John Thune (S.D.) said. “I would attribute it more not to the desire of Republicans to slow things down, but to the Democrats’ desire to just jam us and ram a lot of this agenda through without much deliberation.—

Still, there’s little question that a handful of conservative Republicans — such as Sens. Jim DeMint (S.C.), David Vitter (La.) and Tom Coburn (Okla.) — have used time-consuming Senate rules to their advantage this year.

If just one Senator objects to bringing up or ending debate on a measure, the process to break the blockade could take a week or more to resolve, even when Democrats clearly have the 60 votes needed to beat back a filibuster.

Democrats say GOP obstruction throughout the year threatens to eat up the time the chamber has to finish the 12 spending bills that fund the federal government.

“If they’re going to object to the legislative [branch] appropriations bill, which is noncontroversial, then they’re pushing this to an omnibus appropriation, which they will then criticize because we didn’t go through the regular process,— Durbin said. “It’s unfortunate. It’s hard enough to get these things done with the Senate rules, but if the minority refuses to cooperate it makes it very difficult.—

By law, appropriations bills are supposed to be passed by Sept. 30, the end of fiscal year, or Congress has to pass a stopgap bill to keep the government funded in the interim. In past years, lawmakers have decried having to pass omnibus bills, because they are massive and unwieldy.

Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) complained Tuesday on the floor that DeMint’s refusal to allow Democrats to bring up the legislative branch spending bill was “just wasting time, the people’s time.— DeMint had sought assurances that seven GOP amendments to the bill would be voted on, but Reid told him he could not guarantee that because of potential objections from other Senators.

The legislative branch measure traditionally passes with little debate and few, if any, amendments. DeMint said he and other Republicans have amendments related to the Capitol Visitor Center, Congressional pay raises, recissions to this year’s economic stimulus bill and Senate expenses, among others.

DeMint acknowledged Wednesday that he has been trying to slow the Senate’s legislative pace.

“This rush to expand government and spending, we’ve got to slow it down to a sane pace,— he said. “We’re not trying to derail their agenda, but I think the American people will if we can show them better alternatives.—

DeMint reiterated his plan to block as many Democratic bills as possible, particularly big-ticket items like health care and climate change.

“I just think the whole place is just irresponsible and out of control,— he said. “It’s moving headlong toward socialism and so every day I’m going to stand on the tracks and try to stop them.—

Thune said he believes Democrats have not been fair to Republicans who want to offer amendments and that the GOP would not shrink from having to stay late in the year to debate the Democrats’ agenda.

“I’m sure we’ll be more than happy to be here [into the fall], too, but at some point they’re just going to run out of days on their calendar with all the things we have to get done,— Thune said. “We’re going to play a constructive role here, but we also are going to insist on them playing fair in terms of allowing us to offer amendments and get votes.—

Democrats vehemently deny that they have prevented Republicans from offering amendments to bills.

On the tourism promotion measure that Republicans successfully filibustered earlier this week, Democratic aides said they had a deal with GOP leaders a week ago to vote on three Republican amendments and two Democratic amendments.

When Republicans asked to up their total to five, Democrats agreed but said the majority would then want to offer three amendments — including a proposal from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to address oil speculation.

Aides said Republicans balked at the Sanders amendment and withdrew their offer to vote on amendments. Reid then moved to block all amendments and bring debate on the bill to a close.

One senior Senate GOP aide said Democrats never agreed to five Republican amendments. Still, Thune said Republicans can be expected to hang together this year, even in the face of repeated legislative defeats at the hands of a 59-Member strong Democratic majority.

“If they, mathematically, think that they can just roll over us, they may be able to do that if they can keep their people together,— Thune said. “But we also, on a lot of these bills, are going to be able to keep our folks together, and if we can —- at least currently — we’re in a position to insist on getting some votes on our amendments.—