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Keystone vote: Senate's new openness comes at a price: time and patience

The GOP-controlled Senate has voted on more amendments on the Keystone bill than Democrats allowed in all of last year. But at this pace, it's not clear that essential Senate business will get done. 

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    Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky listens to Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) of Alaska as she speaks to reporters about the Keystone XL pipeline bill on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Tuesday.
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It was going to be a long day working on the Keystone pipeline bill Wednesday, but Sen. Lisa Murkowski was prepared. As the Republican floor manager for the controversial bill, the Alaskan had on her “comfortable” shoes. She was ready for a historic afternoon in which senators planned to debate and vote on more amendments in one day than in all of last year.

But they couldn't quite grind through their vote-a-rama, and a bill that's taken up most of January slipped into another day on its journey to a final vote. 

Welcome to the new Senate, where majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky wants to restore the chamber to its deliberative role – to “open up” debate and allow both sides the chance to offer amendments. Breathing air into the process, giving greater access to the opposition, can help end gridlock and bring the best ideas forward, he believes.

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But with this restoration comes the realization that openness takes time. It takes patience. And it has to be balanced with other pressing matters – for instance, funding the agency that protects Americans from terrorist attacks. The Department of Homeland Security runs out of money on Feb. 27, and the Senate has yet to approve the funding, let alone agree with the House on how to do it. Meanwhile, a looming congressional winter recess will eat up more time.

“I think everyone involved is getting a little bit of a taste of what it means to have an open-amendment process,” says Jim Manley, former spokesman for Sen. Harry Reid (D) of Nevada, the previous majority leader who was notorious among Republicans for blocking their amendments. “No one understands the power of the calendar better than Senator McConnell. The days begin to add up.”

So far, the Senate has spent three weeks on the measure to approve the bipartisan Keystone bill – which is expected to pass but faces a presidential veto. Some lawmakers estimate they have only about seven months to reach agreements on tough issues such as trade, cybersecurity, infrastructure spending, and tax reform before 2016 electioneering gets in the way.

As Senator Murkowski started out on the floor Wednesday, she pointed to the 24 amendments already considered, surpassing last year’s total of 15.

“Sometimes it’s tedious, and sometimes it’s frustrating, and yes, sometimes members wish that they had more time," she said. “We have to recognize that when you spend three weeks on a bill, that’s pretty considerable.”

McConnell is making Keystone a showcase of his commitment to openness. A student of the Senate who is now in his sixth term, he has made a big deal about returning to “regular order” – giving power back to committees, working five days in Washington instead of the customary three, and allowing both sides to file amendments. 

His effort is partly a reaction to practices by both parties that have built up over time, and partly a reaction to Senator Reid’s leadership. The Democrat bottled up the amendment process to shield his members and the president from tough votes on GOP legislation, so-called messaging bills on things like health care and climate change.

The pressure on leaders to control amendments has increased over time, explains Donald Ritchie, the Senate historian. In the 1970s, Sen. Jesse Helms, the Republican conservative from North Carolina, started introducing amendments on hot-button social issues that were not germane to bills. The senator said people needed to know where lawmakers stood on such issues. These votes became fodder for campaign commercials, and pressure grew on leaders to block such amendments.

“Pressure increased on the majority leaders in the 1980s and 1990s, and each one did more than his predecessor, but Senator Reid did it more than any of them,” Mr. Ritchie says.

McConnell’s openness and slower pace – if they survive political pressures – may come as a shock to many in the Senate. Nearly half the senators have served for four years or less. They never experienced “the good old days.” And many senators have migrated from the House, where the majority party controls everything, from debate time to amendments, and business is dispensed with quickly.

Sen. Cory Gardner (R) of Colorado, one of seven House members elected to the Senate in November, calls the pace of the Keystone debate “glacial.”

Keystone “took about an hour and a half in the house – to bring it up, debate it, and vote on it. This has taken three weeks,” says Sen. James Lankford (R) of Oklahoma, another newbie from the House. He applauds the extended conversation, but “the difficulty is, any group can just prolong it forever. We never get on to other bills, other important things.”

The freshman senator is referring, of course, to the unique power of any senator to filibuster – to hold up business until 60 votes are found to unloose that grip. Yes, an open process also means more opportunities for politics to throw a big wrench into the works.

Senator Lankford would have preferred to finish Keystone last week, but Democrats, by refusing on Monday to end debate, decided “to wreck the machine and keep the open process from working.”

What prompted the delay was Democratic outrage over McConnell’s decision late last Thursday night to sweep aside five of their amendments, to table them without allowing their sponsors even one minute of debate. The leader then moved to end debate on the bill and head toward a final vote.

Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson accused McConnell of breaking his pledge by shutting down debate and then sending senators packing for home. “The Republican Senate has held zero votes on the three Fridays it has existed,” Mr. Jentleson pointed out.

Monday’s impasse was overcome when the bill’s two floor leaders, Murkowski and Sen. Maria Cantwell (D) of Washington, agreed on a package of 18 more amendments to be voted on.

Even Democrats strongly opposed to Keystone expressed satisfaction with the arrangement.

“It’s gotten much better now that we finally said we’re not going to stand for this gagging,” says Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) of California. “Now we’re allowed to speak for a minute on our amendments ... and what’s good about it is people are learning this is a really bad idea the longer we can talk about it.”

As the bill looked ready to end its nearly month-long journey Thursday, both the Republican and Democratic leaders extolled the process. "This is the Senate I remember," said Democratic minority whip Dick Durbin of Illinois, agreeing that the past few weeks have shown both parties in "a constructive relationship." 

Not all bills will be as extensively debated as this one – some may be more, some less. And if Democrats begin to offer more hard-hitting messaging amendments, such as on the minimum wage or pay equity, or if calendar pressures prove too much, McConnell may be forced to tighten up the Senate, just as leaders before him have. 

But as long as greater openness survives, senators should be prepared to get their patience on.

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