Iran bill passes 98 to 1. Sign of a Senate breakdown?

The Senate voted overwhelmingly to give itself a say on President Obama's Iran nuclear deal. But it had to revert to hyperpartisan ways to do it. Still, the bill's author sees positive signs for Congress.

Andrew Harnik/AP/File
Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee (c.) and the committee's top Democrat, Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, speak to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington last month. The Senate passed their bill Thursday that would let Congress review and possibly reject any final nuclear deal with Iran.

On Thursday, the Senate either took another step toward functionality or a step back.

Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee is ever the optimist.

The Senate voted 98 to 1 to guarantee congressional review, and possibly rejection, of any final Iran deal. It’s a water-tight, veto-proof, majority.

“It is a taking back of power from the president in a bipartisan way on the biggest geopolitical issue,” says Senator Corker, who began work on the bill last July.

But it's been a very bumpy ride, especially in the week since Sen. Tom Cotton (R) of Arkansas threw a procedural wrench into the works. The move and its aftermath essentially closed down the amendment process. In other words, it stopped a lot of senators from participating in changing the bill.

And that’s a serious issue. Since he took control of the Senate, majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky has been trying to give everyone a voice – even Democrats – by allowing them to offer amendments to bills. Amendments are not just a matter of process. They are the equivalent of senatorial vocal chords. They give voice to lawmakers, allowing them to change a bill, grandstand, and score political points. Amendments can kill a bill, but they can also release political steam from a contentious issue.

On Thursday, the Senate got its bipartisan bill, but Senator McConnell’s vision of a freer and more open Senate took a hit.

“Senator McConnell may become a victim of his own grand vision of a new and more-freewheeling Senate,” says Ross Baker, a congressional expert at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. Another serious test comes next week, when the Senate takes up a highly contentious trade bill.

But Corker doesn't share Mr. Baker’s assessment. Despite the senator's grueling experience of recent weeks, he’s optimistic that Senate openness will improve over time. He likens the process that produced the Iran bill to the first in a batch of pancakes – not particularly golden or well shaped.

“My guess is the third, the fourth, the fifth, the sixth pancake out of the mix will be easier to make and the amendment process will ease up,” he says in an interview.

Don Stewart, a senior aide to McConnell, says the increased number of amendments this year has helped to move bills forward. “We’ve already [had votes] on 100 more amendments than all of last year combined and it’s only May,” he says. Senators from both parties have expressed appreciation, including Democratic minority whip Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois in remarks on the Senate floor.

This winter, for instance, senators offered 247 amendments to the Keystone pipeline bill, voting on 42 of them. In stark contrast, only two Iran amendments made it to the floor for a vote – though more than 60 were offered, all from Republicans.

The difference is that Iran is a much bigger, polarizing issue – and a handy vehicle for a presidential candidate and a freshman defense hawk to latch on to.

Last Thursday, just before Corker and Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D) of Maryland were getting ready to offer up more agreed-to amendments, Senator Cotton, who calls the outline of an Iran agreement "a bad deal," pulled a rare parliamentary maneuver that forced to the front of the line his amendment and one by Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida – a presidential candidate. The two Republicans were frustrated that Democrats wouldn't agree to vote on their amendments.

Cotton's amendment proposed shutting down all Iranian nuclear facilities as a condition to any final nuclear deal, and Senator Rubio required Iran to recognize Israel’s right to exist as a state. The White House viewed them as them bill-killing “poison pills.”

Cotton’s move brought the bill to a halt. The impasse was only cleared when McConnell decided to move to a vote on the bill, rather than bring up the amendments of Cotton and Rubio – members of his own party. Other amendments could have been offered, and an attempt was made to do so, but as Corker said, the surprise by Cotton “poisoned the well.”

This would never have happened under the former majority leader, Democrat Harry Reid of Nevada, says Baker at Rutgers. “He would have known beforehand that this was not desirable, that these amendments were so obviously designed for self-aggrandizement of individual senators and were at odds with the needs of the party.”

By promising an open process McConnell is acting as if it’s “the good old days” of free-wheeling amendments in the Senate, says Baker. But those days began disappearing in the 1970s and ’80s when former Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina used amendments on sensitive issues such as abortion to put opponents on record for 30-second sound-bites at campaign time.

Amendments degenerated further with the “permanent campaign,” says Baker. They became “political ammunition to humiliate, embarrass, and otherwise confound the opposition.” Once that process got going, majority leaders had to start controlling it – as Senator Reid did. What McConnell should have offered was an easing of the amendment process, an evolution, not a revolution, Baker says.

Going forward, McConnell is going to have to subject the amendment process to more scrutiny, Baker says.

But that could well provoke just the kind of frustration among senators that the majority leader is seeking to avoid.

“The problem is, if they’re now going to pick and choose which bills they’ll have amendments on, that defeats the purpose,” says former Sen. Mark Begich (D) of Alaska. “When you start interfering with that, you’re breaking down the system of allowing people to express their view.”

Corker, though, suggests that his colleagues may have learned a lesson from this go-round. “There has to be a degree of restraint for the Senate to work,” he says. Otherwise, the process grinds to a halt and everyone gets penalized.

“It’s been so long since we’ve had this open amendment process, it’s just going to take a while for that sense of restraint to kick in.”

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