Sen. Chris Coons was pumped. Heading into an unusual, free-for-all debate on immigration, the Democrat from Delaware stopped to praise the “great” open process promised by the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky.
“I’ve been here seven years and never seen anything like it,” Senator Coons told a scrum of reporters Monday evening. “Who knows, democracy might yet break out here on the floor of the Senate.”
After years of failing to reach an accord on an issue that roils both parties’ bases – immigration – Republicans and Democrats are trying something so old it seems radically new: looking to forge a bipartisan consensus through an open exchange of ideas.
The Senate may be known as the world’s greatest deliberative body. But in reality, the majority leader tightly controls what comes to the floor and when. In recent years, as political tribalism has grown, this has been taken to extremes – with the result that the minority party has often been completely shut out of the legislative process.
The previous majority leader, Democrat Harry Reid of Nevada, consistently blocked the ability of Republicans even to offer input on bills through amendments. Frustrated with Republicans’ blocking of executive branch nominees, former Senator Reid and the Democrats changed Senate rules so that most nominees could speed through to confirmation with only a majority vote.
When Senator McConnell took the helm in 2015, he returned to “regular order” – allowing both parties to offer changes on the floor, and for bills to bubble up through committees, rather than being cooked up in the leader’s office and handed to members as a fait accompli.
But that effort ended when the GOP won the White House. In 2017, McConnell used special rules to muscle through a Supreme Court nominee, a tax bill, and a partial repeal of the Affordable Care Act without having to get Democratic buy-in.
Last year saw a notable “demise” of debate, with the Senate considering the lowest number of amendments in more than a decade, according to John Fortier of the Bipartisan Policy Center.
The nation loses out when lawmakers are not given the opportunity to debate and offer amendments, writes Mr. Fortier in The Hill. An open process “improves the quality of legislation and deepens the legitimacy of the process by incorporating the diversity of voices and viewpoints Congress is intended to represent.”
The way things used to be
Fewer and fewer senators have any recollection of the days when the Senate routinely operated this way.
“Open debate in Congress is something that older senators tell younger senators they used to see. Kind of like 8-track tapes or vinyl records. Yes, there was such a thing once,” says John Pitney, a professor of political science at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.
Senior senators such as Lamar Alexander (R) of Tennessee have been trying to impart some of that institutional knowledge. According to Coons, the former Tennessee governor has used bipartisan gatherings of about 25 senators as a kind of tutorial on the way things used to be.
The group, called the “Common Sense Coalition,” started meeting in January in the office of Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine to find a way to end the government shutdown. They are now focused on immigration.
“One of the more inspiring things about the Common Sense Coalition has been hearing Lamar Alexander describe to us what this place looked like when it actually worked,” Coons told reporters. “The process of debate actually refined proposals and helped folks understand the details and hear each other and say, ‘You know, I can’t quite go for that, but maybe I could go for this.’ ”
McConnell’s offer of a fair and open process to find a fix for young, unauthorized “Dreamers,” who were brought to the United States as children, is not as altruistic as it may appear. He made the promise as part of a political deal to end the government shutdown and get a two-year budget agreement. He’s acting on that commitment.
At the same time, to pass the Senate, an immigration bill will need to clear the 60-vote threshold – and that will require Democratic support. An open process is of limited risk to McConnell, observers say, because if it fails, he can say he tried. Dreamers are not a big issue in his state, which has a low Latino population.
“I don’t see how McConnell loses, whatever the outcome,” says Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. “He personally has no dog in this fight.”
Things go wobbly
At the same time, given the free-form process – with only a shell bill and no committee-passed bill to start from – anything can happen. This can completely fall apart, with nothing able to gain 60 votes, or senators can be forced to take tough votes, such as on sanctuary cities.
Also an issue: what can pass in the GOP-controlled House and be signed by the president.
Indeed, things began to go wobbly on Tuesday, as the Senate a procedural snag as party leaders disagreed over the order of amendments. A Republican amendment backed by McConnell and reflecting the president’s priorities had not yet been set in legislative text by mid-afternoon. A bipartisan compromise by the Common Sense Coalition had yet to be struck, though senators said they were “close.”
Democrats proposed an amendment by Coons and Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona that reflects a bipartisan bill in the House that has 27 co-sponsors from each side. The bills are narrowly focused on just two issues: Dreamers and border security.
Coons allows that his amendment probably can’t get 60 votes, but neither can the GOP bill backed by McConnell. Yet he sees them as a starting point. “They will form a core center from which we can work.”