Politics & Policy

Harry Reid’s Obstructionism

The Senate majority leader’s hostility toward amendments is finally catching up to him.

It took a while, but the media seem to have finally noticed Senate majority leader Harry Reid’s unprecedented obstructionism.

The New York Times reported last week on Reid’s “brutish style” and “uncompromising control” over the amendments process in the Senate. Why are more people finally catching on to Reid’s flagrant disregard for Senate customs? In part because conservatives aren’t the only ones complaining.

Democrats such as Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota — who wants to repeal Obamacare’s medical-device tax — and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York — who has waged a highly publicized campaign to reform the way the military handles sexual-assault cases — have been denied votes on their proposed amendments to various bills. Gillibrand had hoped to attach her sexual-assault amendment to the defense-appropriations bill that passed in December, but no amendments were allowed. Klobuchar has called for “a more open amendment process” because she’d like a vote on repealing the medical-device tax.

Moderate Republicans who occasionally vote with Democrats and help broker bipartisan compromise are annoyed as well. Senator Lisa Murkowki of Alaska told the New York Times she was “kind of fed up” with Reid’s obstructionism. “He’s a leader. Why is he not leading this Senate? Why is he choosing to ignore the fact that he has a minority party that he needs to work with, that actually has some decent ideas? Why is he bringing down the institution of the Senate?”

Reid’s tight control of the amendments process has become a point of contention in the debate over unemployment benefits, which he’d like to extend without providing funding for the program. After signaling that he would not allow any Republican amendments on a bill to temporarily extend the benefits, Reid appears to be backing down, however begrudgingly. “I am open to considering a reasonable number of relevant amendments to [the bill], if that’s what it takes to end Republican obstruction,” he said Monday on Twitter.

Allowing a “reasonable number of relevant amendments” from the minority party has not always been considered a concession in the Senate. It was once referred to as “regular order.” Despite Reid’s claims that he has been “very generous with amendments,” the number of amendment votes per year (not counting non-binding budget amendments, which by law cannot be limited) has declined from 218 in 2007, when Reid became majority leader, to 67 in 2013. Since July of last year, Republicans have been allowed a grand total of four amendments.

Some of Reid’s defenders have justified his hostility toward amendments by arguing that he is simply trying to protect vulnerable Democrats from having to vote on politically challenging but ultimately meaningless ones, such as a GOP proposal to repeal Obamacare’s individual mandate. In order to avoid these votes, they argue, Reid has been forced to block all amendments through a process known as “filling the tree.”

Members of the minority party are not impressed with this defense. Red-state Democrats up for reelection in 2014 “are grown-ups,” says a senior GOP aide. “They are U.S. senators who were elected to take positions on tough issues, and if they don’t want to, that’s too bad.”

Republicans complain that the media’s reporting on the “unprecedented obstructionism” of a “do-nothing Congress” has focused almost exclusively on GOP filibusters in the Senate and the refusal of the Republican-controlled House to take up Senate-passed bills, such as the Gang of Eight immigration-reform legislation. They note that House Republicans passed more than 200 bills in 2013, many of which Reid has refused to hold votes on in the Senate. House-passed legislation is readily dismissed as “dead on arrival” in the upper chamber, while the storyline surrounding Senate measures, such as the immigration bill, tends to focus on House speaker John Boehner “facing pressure” to hold a vote in the House. In reality, of the 72 bills President Obama signed into law last year, only 16 originated in the Senate.

Reid has refused to bring up measures that would almost certainly pass with bipartisan support, such as legislation approving construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, or the aforementioned medical-device-tax repeal. He has also refused to consider legislation to impose new sanctions on Iran: A majority of Senate Democrats support the idea, but it’s strongly opposed by the White House. On the Iranian issue, Republicans have accused Reid of “playing defense for the president” against the wishes of his own conference.

Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, still reeling from Reid’s unprecedented use of the “nuclear option” to eliminate filibusters on executive-branch appointees, has gone on the offensive, taking to the Senate floor last week to urge members to “restore the Senate to its purpose,” which he says will produce better legislation for all.

“I realize amendments frighten some people,” McConnell said. “But it’s the best way I know to force an outcome everybody’s satisfied with.”

— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.

Andrew StilesAndrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online. He previously worked at the Washington Free Beacon, and was an intern at The Hill newspaper. Stiles is a 2009 ...


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