After finding out that Republicans had won a majority of the seats in the U.S. Senate Mitch McConnell—the presumptive majority leader—immediately laid out his priorities.
“The first thing I need to do is get the Senate back to normal, and that means working more,” McConnell said.
The goal was to strike a balance between open debate and decisive action. The minority should have their say, amendments should be heard and debated, but legislation should get passed. Deliberation is what the Senate was constructed to do, action is what Americans have come to expect. What no one wants is for the parties to use procedural tricks to bury debate and shun the minority. As McConnell argued on the Senate floor last January, “It just can’t be the case that senators – on either side – are content with the theatrics and the messaging wars that go on here day after day.”
If the first month of the legislative session Mitch McConnell and his GOP colleagues have proved better than their word. In fact, in just one week the Republican-led Senate voted on more amendments than the entire Democrat-controlled Senate considered in all of 2014.
“We’ve actually reached a milestone here that I think it noteworthy for the Senate. We just cast our 15th roll-call vote on an amendment on this bill, which is more votes – more roll-call votes on amendments than the entire United States Senate did in all of 2014,” McConnell said on the Senate Floor.
All told the Senate voted on a whopping 40 amendments, most of which were efforts by Democrat senators to make Republicans take tough, potentially unpopular votes.
In general, Democrats were effusive in their praise.
“I welcome what Senator McConnell, our new majority leader, has envisioned as a more active floor in the Senate where we . . . bring amendments to the floor, debate them, vote on them, and ultimately pass legislation,” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) said on the floor. “That is the procedure of the Senate which historically had been honored, but fell, sadly, into disrepair over the last several years.”
Those dark years were overseen by Sen. Harry Reid, who used every procedural trick in the book to trample the rights of the minority. The most famous of those maneuvers was “filling the amendment tree,” a practice that allowed him to prevent hearing any Republican amendments by filling up the agreed-upon number of amendment slots with small, inconsequential changes to the underlying bill. Reid employed the tactic more than 80 times. By comparison, the previous six majority leaders “filled the tree” a total of 49 times combined.
Despite that legacy as the most iron-fisted Senate leader of all time, Reid is doing his best to corrupt the new, open process.
After McConnell allowed votes on 24 amendments (11 more than the Reid allowed the entire previous year) Reid tweeted, “I’ve never seen debate shut down as aggressively as when Sen. McConnell refused to allow Dems to debate their own amendments for just 1 min.” Reid’s hypocritical complaint stemmed from a cloture vote – which would have ended debate and brought a final vote on the Keystone XL bill – that Republicans were pursuing after spending nearly a month on debate and amendment votes.
To his credit, McConnell relented, allowing 16 more amendments to be heard, debated and voted on. But, let’s be clear what Senator Reid and other Democrats are trying to do – shut down the Senate by dragging out the process on every single bill. If it takes a month to pass a relatively modest infrastructure bill then it’s going to be impossible for the Senate to do much of the work that voters sent them there to do.
Returning to an open amendment process is an incredibly laudable achievement, but for this bit of democracy to work Democrats have to stop the partisan theatrics.