Trio Accused of Obstructing Senate
Senators: Colleagues Need to Be Vigilant
A handful of conservative GOP Senators have made it their duty to review practically every amendment — major or minor — that passes through the Senate chamber, much to the chagrin of many Senators and staff who feel the self-appointed legislative gatekeepers are overstepping their bounds.
The concerns of Sens. Tom Coburn (Okla.), Jim DeMint (S.C.) and, to a somewhat lesser extent, John McCain (Ariz.) have become so ubiquitous that one Appropriations subcommittee included all three of their offices on the form that committee Republicans use to clear amendments to the bills.
None of the three Senators serves on Appropriations.
“They’re a lot more willing to do the dirty work,— one former Senate GOP leadership staffer said. “They’re the self-appointed police in the Senate.—
All three lawmakers said they are trying to do the work that most other Members entrust to committee chairmen and leaders.
“Americans can’t believe that most Members never even read the bills or amendments we vote on,— DeMint said in a statement. “But the trillions being wasted is no joke to voters. Our team is doing exactly what Americans expect, to read, research and scrutinize the way tax dollars are being spent before we vote, not after. There have to be at least a few of us willing to guard against wasteful earmarks and runaway spending. If we didn’t research these things, they’d slip through without a second thought.—
But the formalized way in which the Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security staff seemed to treat the level of consultation the three Senators demanded on amendments last week irked many in both parties. Senators are accustomed to only needing sign-off from committee chairmen with relevant jurisdiction.
“Republicans have elevated these knuckleheads to the same status as committee chairmen,— one senior Senate Democratic aide complained.
“We honestly do believe in the right to object,— echoed one Senate GOP aide. “But institutionalizing that and making it easier for them, that’s where I object.—
The GOP aide added that a handful of GOP Senators have “asserted their right so forcefully— that the committee has been obliged to make them a formal part of the process. “I do think [committee] staff are trying to make it easier on everybody, but in reality, it shouldn’t be so easy,— the aide said.
Coburn spokesman John Hart defended the Oklahoman’s role in the process, saying his boss wishes he had more company in the review of Senate business.
“Dr. Coburn believes it is the responsibility of every Senator to read and understand the bills and amendments that come to the floor,— Hart said. “The American people would be shocked to know how often major — and costly — legislation passes the Senate with little review.—
Hart said Coburn has a staffer on the floor for every single measure — not just appropriations — that moves through the chamber, and that his efforts to review amendments are more often than not joined by DeMint and McCain staffers. But Hart emphasized that the three Senators are always involved in final decisions on whether to press issues into full-scale objections.
DeMint, of course, has the added backing of the Senate GOP Steering Committee staff, because he chairs the grouping of conservative Senators. Steering staff has been reviewing legislation for Republicans for years, one GOP aide said. The aide noted that DeMint’s involvement in the review process is crucial because his sign-off often satisfies a number of other conservative Steering Members who might otherwise send their own staffers to the floor for amendment and bill examinations.
Of course, Coburn and DeMint have been routinely criticized on both sides of the aisle for what many consider to be obstructionist behavior in the past, and both names feature prominently in news stories about Senate action being halted or delayed on various bills.
Though DeMint has appeared to soften his stance a bit this year, his attempts to be involved in most floor strategy decisions in the past caused some in Senate GOP leadership circles to call him the “shadow leader— who was undermining the authority of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
McCain, on the other hand, has been largely vilified by appropriators because he has been more narrowly focused on spending bills. The Arizonan has been scouring appropriations bills and demanding to see amendments before they are cleared for 20 years, his spokeswoman said.
Current and former staffers said it is not unusual for Senators to insist on reviewing amendments or legislation before it passes. One former Senate GOP aide said it has been common for Senators of either party to lodge “standing objections— with Republican floor staff, but acknowledged that, with the new appropriations document, “it hadn’t been formalized to this extent before.—
By tradition, any Senator can request to be notified before legislation of any kind comes to the floor. And the imperative to try to speed Senate action by getting the “unanimous consent— of all 100 Senators has created a system whereby both parties issue alerts, or hotlines, on legislation they want to clear without a roll-call vote.
Putting Coburn, DeMint and McCain on forms to clear amendments, the former Senate GOP aide said, “actually smooths the appropriations process, so that there’s no surprises, there’s no eruptions on the Senate floor.—
Martin Paone, who previously served as the Senate Democrats’ top staffer on the floor, recalled that former Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) would often send staff to the floor at the end of every Congress to review the flurry of bills that traditionally get passed with little review at that time. But Paone said he could not recall a similar situation in which a Member or group of lawmakers insisted on reviewing every piece of legislation or amendment that traversed through the chamber.
“You usually don’t have people who want blanket consults on everything,— Paone said.