'King' Harry? GOP fury as Reid rewrites how the Senate works.
Senate majority leader Harry Reid left Republicans dumbfounded Thursday when he made a move some call the 'nuclear option.' It could mean Senate gridlock has passed a breaking point.
A Senate bid to sanction China over trade abuses cleared its highest hurdle Thursday morning with a bipartisan, supermajority vote and seemed on track for passage by Friday morning, at the latest.Skip to next paragraph
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Then came a move so unexpected that, for a time, it left senators fixed in their seats, stunned, and silent.
In the Senate, where the rights of the party in the minority are held as almost sacred, Senator Reid's move to abruptly change the way the Senate works could have far-reaching consequences.
Indeed, some Republicans say that, going forward, they will block all legislation, unless Democrats change the rule to cut off amendments. With Democrats needing Republican support to bring bills to the floor, that could essentially bring the chamber to a legislative standstill for the foreseeable future.
Some Democrats offered a more hopeful prognosis, suggesting that the move could shock Republicans and Democrats into addressing deeper rifts that have divided them and made the Senate part of the broader congressional dysfunction. But in the cloistered world of the Senate, Reid's move was a seismic event that could create ill will not easily overcome.
Business as usual, until...
In short, it came about because Reid simply became tired of Republicans proposing amendments at least partly aimed at hurting Democrats in the next election.
Democrats say that GOP obstructionist tactics are now so pervasive that the Senate barely functions, requiring the majority leader to plan the legislative calendar around filing cloture motions to limit debate. Republicans counter that amendments are one of the minority's most powerful legislative levers – their last shot at influencing what’s debated on the floor.
By 6:38 p.m. Thursday, the tourists had gone home, and the galleries were empty. A vote to end debate on the China trade measure – called a cloture vote – had passed earlier on Thursday with 12 Republican votes, 62 to 38. From that point on, the bill’s passage was virtually certain.
Leaders on both sides of the aisle had agreed to allow seven amendments, which represented business as usual.
Then, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky proposed substituting one of those seven for another, and the trouble began. The new amendment would nix proposed Environmental Protection Agency air-quality regulations that limit how much dust farmers can churn into the air.
The issue is a sensitive one for Democratic senators in farm states. They don't want to be seen as voting against the Obama administration's environmental regulations, but the rule is seen as draconian among farmers. Reid knew that the vote was a no-win situation for his farm-state senators – and the Republicans had offered it precisely for that reason.
So Reid said, essentially, enough is enough and denied the switch.
Republicans responded by turning to a ploy that has long precedent in the Senate: suspending the rules so they could bring up amendments without the consent of the majority.
What Reid did next has thrown the Senate into turmoil.
What Reid did
In a move not vetted with GOP leaders or most Democrats on the floor, Reid, reading from a script, called on the Senate to end that precedent by simple majority vote.
Reid defended himself. “The same logic that allows for nine such motions could lead to the consideration of 99 such amendments,” he said. “This practice has gotten way out of hand … and that is a result that a functioning democracy cannot tolerate.”
But Republicans were astonished. Instead of rushing to the airport after the last vote before a weekend, more than half the Senate stayed in their seats to talk publicly about the meaning of the vote they had just taken. The mood was sober, unscripted, and highly attentive.