Democrats Invoke ‘Nuclear Option’ in Senate

Oct 6, 2011 10:20pm
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Democrats invoked the so-called “nuclear option” to change the rules in the U.S. Senate, bypassing Republicans and evading two difficult votes, including one on President Obama’s jobs bill.

The procedural precedent, which blocked Republicans from adding more amendments, could speed passage of a bill to punish China for currency manipulation.

It could also open a Pandora’s box, forever altering the traditions of the senate and its role on Capitol Hill.

The bickering was the culmination of months of arguments and fierce partisanship that revealed themselves tonight in a nasty fight over procedure that yielded little actual progress on legislation.

After a marathon argument on the Senate floor for more than two hours, the precedent of the Senate was changed, none of the bills that were intended to get voted on did, votes were delayed until next week, senators have gone home for the holiday weekend with little to show for their work week, hurt feelings were on full display and there are now changes to Senate procedure that could have ramifications for years to come.

The argument originally started on the Senate floor tonight over the China currency bill, which ironically enough enjoys bipartisan support. Earlier Thursday it received 79 votes on one procedural motion and 62 votes – two more than necessary – to cut off debate.

But Republicans sought to add as amendments to the China currency bill two measures on which Democrats did not want to vote – one was on the President’s jobs bill, which they hope to change, and another was from Senator Mike Johanns, R-NE., to block EPA rules on farm dust.

When McConnell would not give up on seeking votes for the two unrelated bills, Reid used the nuclear option. Reid said that the Senate must have the ability to move forward with bills that have broad bipartisan support.

Reid said that unlimited motions to suspend the rules could lead to a filibuster. So in the end the Senate voted on appealing the ruling of the Senate parliamentarian, and won. This created the new precedent allowing the majority to cut off motions to suspend as dilatory, ie: wasteful.

McConnell accused the Majority Leader of turning the Senate, usually with ample time for debate and discussion, into the House.

“We are fundamentally turning the Senate into the House,” McConnell said, “No amendments before cloture. No motions to suspend after cloture. The minority’s out of business.”

“I know there are some hurt feelings here,” Reid admitted, “This has to come to an end; this is not the way to legislate,” although adding that he’s “very comfortable with his move to block dilatory amendments.

“When we get a chance to legislate, we shouldn’t be held up by these dilatory matters,” Reid said, “I’m willing to legislate. I’ll take a lot of hard votes in my career and I would be happy to vote on these. But there has to be an end to this.”

McConnell rebutted that the country is better off with more debate and said the Senate made a “big mistake” tonight.

At the end of the night a tired and frustrated Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., even said that the argument may have gone a little too far.

He called for a joint meeting of Democrats and Republicans behind closed doors to air out their grievances in a saner manner once they all have had time to cool off over the long Columbus Day weekend.

“I think that would be a good step forward, that [Senate Minority Leader Mitch] McConnell and I could be there in front of everybody else together, questions could be asked, statements could be made, and we could see if that would let a little air out of the tires,” Reid said of the intended impromptu future therapy session.

The vote on the China currency bill, three long-stalled trade agreements and President Obama’s jobs bill are now all delayed until Tuesday of next week. Senators have now gone home for the holiday weekend and will be back on Tuesday.

Here’s how the Senate winded their way to this very complex situation tonight.

The Senate voted to suspend the rules out of order, using a simple majority to change the rules of the debate and do an an end-run around a filibuster Republicans were launching by offering many amendments . This is called the “nuclear option” because it stops the minority from offering amendments and establishes a new precedent for the Senate. After tonight’s vote, it is no longer allowed to add post-cloture amendments which seek to suspend the rules.

Emotions ran high – not only by the procedural moves and what they’ll mean for the Senate, but also because what this move shows about the Senate.

“I think members on both sides of the aisle feel like this institution has-to-degraded into a place that is no longer a place of any deliberation at all,” Senator Corker, R-Tenn., said, “and I’d like for you and the minority leader to explain to us so that we have one story here in public as to what has happened this week to lead us to the place that we are. That’s all I’m asking. That’s all I want to know. Explain how the greatest deliberative body on a bill that many would say was a messaging bill in the first place ended up having no amendments and we’re in this place that we are right now.”

“We have changed the rules of the senate on a messaging bill, on a matter that the majority leader had the votes on,” Senator Wicker, R-MS., said, “so that is my objection. That is why I am so disturbed about the overreaction and heavy-handedness of this move. This is not a matter of supporting of one bill that he wants to get us out of town on. This is precedent, and we have — unless we can change it, we have forever changed the right of the majority to be heard post cloture, and I am saddened about that.”

Senator Schumer, D-NY., channeling a therapist, suggesting using this debate as a flashpoint to try to come together and work the larger problem of partisanship in the Senate out. ”

“If we’re going to bring this place back to a way where we can legislate, we are going to have to both sides back off and we’re going to have to figure out how to do that, which we haven’t very adequately yet,” Schumer said.

Concluded Reid, “I’m sure we can all cinch up our belts and as they say in the old and new testament gird our loins and try to do a better job of how we get along here.”

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