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Senate rules allow votes on amendments

Published: Tuesday, April 9, 2013 12:10 p.m. CST

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What we saw unfold in the Senate budget vote-a-rama just before the Easter recess is important in evaluating competing claims about the reason for dysfunction in the Senate.

Democratic leaders push an aggressive narrative that all the blame goes to Republican obstructionism and abuse of the filibuster, but those who adhere to this partisan account cannot use it to explain why the Democrat-controlled Senate hadn’t passed a budget resolution since 2009.

Unique rules govern consideration of a budget resolution.  There’s fixed time for debate.  It can’t be filibustered.  It can be passed in relatively short order with a simple majority. 

At the same time, there are few limits on offering amendments, as long as amendments are germane.  That’s undoubtedly a major reason Democratic leaders avoided the annual budget process through two election cycles, despite requirements of the Budget Act of 1974.  

Separate from the budget resolution and its unique rules, current majority party leaders have gone to great lengths to avoid having their senators cast difficult votes.  These leaders have used procedural tactics to block any amendments from being offered to pending legislation while making motions to end consideration of bills. 

Time and again, when Republicans vote against giving up our right to offer amendments, the Democratic leadership has called it a Republican-launched filibuster.

Merriam-Webster’s definition of a filibuster is “the use of extreme dilatory tactics in an attempt to delay or prevent action especially in a legislative assembly.” 

That leaves some room for debate about when a filibuster is being employed, but any fair observer would say that when the majority leader moves to shut off consideration of a bill the same day he brings it to the floor and before any amendments have been considered, he cannot reasonably claim it is in response to a filibuster.

The real story may be that Senate Democratic leaders fear that Republicans will offer amendments that attract enough votes from Democratic senators to pass.  What happened during Senate debate on the budget resolution seems to prove that point.  A Republican amendment in support of repealing the tax on life-saving medical devices in President Obama’s health care law passed by an overwhelming 79 to 20, with more than half of Democrats voting with Republicans, rather than their party leader.  A Republican amendment in support of approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline to bring oil from Canada passed 62 to 37.

Votes like these that split the Democrats and hand a win to Republicans are exactly what the majority leader has been trying to avoid by not considering a budget resolution for more than three years and by cutting off consideration of other bills aggressively.

As a result, more than 200 years of Senate tradition as a deliberative body is sacrificed to short-term partisan considerations.  Every senator represents from hundreds of thousands to millions of Americans, and every senator has an individual right to offer amendments for consideration.  When senators are denied this right, it hampers our ability to represent the citizens of our respective states.  For example, when the Senate majority leader prematurely ended consideration of the fiscal year 2013 Continuing Resolution in March, the Senate was prevented from considering an amendment by Senator Max Baucus that would have checked the cost-saving claims of removing National Guard aircraft like those in Des Moines, Iowa.  An amendment by Senator Jerry Moran to prevent the closure of contract air traffic control towers like the one in Dubuque, Iowa, also was shut out.

For the Senate to function, the right of senators to offer amendments for consideration must be preserved.  This fundamental reality should have been a bigger focus of the January agreement on filibuster rules.  Yet, news reports in days leading up to the agreement cited Democratic senators who were advocating for sweeping reforms to make the Senate more majoritarian expressing great concern that a deal might be struck that allowed Republican amendments to be adopted on a simple majority vote.  Well, that shatters any pretense that complaints about the filibuster stemmed from deeply held convictions about majority rule.

The budget resolution debate in March gave us what has become a rare opportunity, unfortunately, for senators to put forward ideas and see whether the ideas have support in the Senate.  Some amendments were successful, and some were not.  Either way, senators were forced to go on record on all sorts of issues that might not otherwise see the light of day and explain their positions to those who elected them.  As lawmakers return to work in Washington, they ought to consider, what’s wrong with that?

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