As I mentioned earlier, tonight Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) threw what might be described as a procedural temper tantrum. The Senate was prepared to vote on final passage of a China currency bill that was certain to pass, as cloture had already been invoked by a 62-38 vote.
Under Senate rules, the minority party is allowed to offer amendments to a piece of legislation following cloture, provided that the amendments are relevant, or “germane,” to the legislation under consideration. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) had been attempting all week to force a vote on President Obama’s job bill. After all, the president had repeatedly chastised Congress for failing to take it up. However, Reid didn’t have unanimous Democratic support for the jobs bill as is, and so was seeking to avoid such an embarrassing vote. He had already blocked attempt to bring the bill to a vote earlier this week.
So McConnell’s plan was to offer the president’s bill as a post-cloture amendment to the China currency bill, along with several other Republican amendments. And though it would not be considered a “germane” amendment, the Senate could waive this requirement under a “motion to suspend the rules,” which requires a two-thirds majority for approval. This motion would be the vehicle McConnell would use to force Democrats to vote on the president’s plan, which they don’t all support, at least not in its current form. The motion would fail, but the bipartisan opposition to the president’s bill would be noted in the record. Furthermore, Republicans were seeking an amendment that would ban the Environmental Protection Agency regulating farm dust, which I wrote about here. Democrats were understandably embarrassed by the prospect of having to support such senseless regulations.
When McConnell offered his motion on the Senate floor, it was ruled in order by the Senate parliamentarian, as is the custom. But then, in unprecedented fashion, Reid objected. Senators were called to the Senate chamber where they voted along party lines 51-48 to overrule the parliamentarian’s decision, effectively eliminating the minority’s ability to offer amendments under these circumstances. Forever. Or at least until the rule is overturn by another simple majority vote.
“This is an outrage!” Sen. Roger Wicker (R., Miss.) protested as members were casting their votes. When the ruling was formally approved, an impassioned back and forth ensued. “We are fundamentally turning the Senate into the House,” said a visibly irritated McConnell. “The rules of the Senate will be effectively changed to lock out the minority party even more.”
Even Reid seemed aware of the magnitude of his decision. “What just took place here is an effort to expedite what goes on around here,” he said. “Am I 100 percent confident that I’m right? No. But I feel pretty comfortable with what we’ve done.”
Indeed, Reid had opted for the so-called “nuclear option,” to toss history and precedent aside and change the rules of the Senate, all to avoid having to vote on a jobs plan the president has repeatedly called on Congress to pass, and a bill that would eliminate some of the most absurd regulations proposed by the EPA. Instead, Reid intends to hold a vote next week on an amended version of the bill that includes a 5.6 percent “millionaire surtax” to cover the bill’s $450 billion price tag.
The implications of Reid’s play tonight should not be understated. In theory, there is nothing preventing the Senate from using this same tactic to do away with any number of rules, including the 60-vote requirement to break a filibuster. In fact, many liberals have been clamoring for Reid to do just that in order to ram through controversial agenda items like Obamacare or a second, even larger stimulus package. Reid has established a firm precedent that will not soon be forgotten.
Given the increasingly high likelihood that Republicans will regain control of the Senate in 2012, this was an especially risky maneuver for Reid to pull. Both parties tend to accept and abide by the Senate rules, knowing that any election cycle could relegate them to minority status, in which case they want protections like the one Reid just eliminated to remain in place. Senate Republicans are livid, and understandably so. If they do take power in the coming election, and, for example, Obamacare repeal comes before the Senate, things could get pretty interesting.