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Specter Wants Changes to Rules for Debate

Frustrated with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) efforts to control floor debates, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said Wednesday he is drafting a rules change that would guarantee the minority the right to offer amendments to legislation on the Senate floor. Specter acknowledged that his proposal stands virtually no chance of achieving the two-thirds majority required to change Senate rules. But he said he wanted to bring attention to what he described as a growing problem with the way Reid is running the floor.

Specter said Democrats successfully have painted GOP Senators as opposed to debating a nonbinding resolution criticizing President Bush’s Iraq War policies because the American people do not understand that Republicans simply are trying to ensure that they are given ample opportunity to offer amendments during the debate.

“Democrats are winning the public relations battle,” Specter said on the floor. “Most people think that what is going on, because we are opposing ending debate [on the Iraq resolution] … that we do not want to have the debate. That we do not want to have a vote, and that is not factually correct. … But it is my hope that there will yet be a recognition of really what is going on.”

Indeed, Senate Republicans have been smarting this week following criticism — from Democrats and the media — of their decision to oppose Reid’s efforts to begin debate on an Iraq resolution sponsored by Sens. John Warner (R-Va.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.). On Monday, all but two Republicans voted against closing debate, or invoking cloture, on Reid’s motion to proceed to the Iraq resolution. Without agreement on a motion to proceed, the Senate cannot formally begin debating a measure.

“Sen. Warner voted against cloture, and he’s the principal proponent of disagreeing with the president’s [Iraq] plan,” explained Specter. “Senators who are critics of the president’s plan have voted against cutting off debate because it is a big issue that ought to be debated and because what is going on behind the scenes — under the surface — is an effort to have agreement on how many votes there will be to have a fair airing of the subject matter and to have an opportunity for Senators to vote on a variety of resolutions and amendments.”

Specter said Reid’s implicit threat to use a procedural tool known as “filling the amendment tree” on bills ranging from the Iraq resolution to the fiscal 2007 joint funding resolution is at the heart of Republican concerns over whether they will have the opportunity to offer alternative proposals. Filling the tree, a tool Senate Majority Leaders have often used by virtue of their right to be recognized first and offer amendments first on the Senate floor, precludes other Senators from offering amendments to bills.

“What is happening today is that the charges are being leveled on all sides — an awful lot of finger-pointing — with most of the Democrats saying the Republicans are obstructing a vote [on Iraq],” Specter said. “And Republicans are saying … ‘We are insisting on our right to debate the motion to proceed.’”

Specter acknowledged that most people, even some of his own staff, don’t understand the procedural maneuvering that has gone into the Iraq debate.

“If you ask virtually anybody, ‘What’s filling the tree?’ you’d think about an orchard,” Specter said. “They’re not going to think about Senate procedure.”

When a Majority Leader uses his power to fill the amendment tree, he essentially brings up a bill, proposes a first-degree amendment that is virtually identical to the underlying bill and then proposes a second-degree amendment that also is virtually identical to the bill. Unless there is a vote on the amendments or the Majority Leader agrees to set the amendments aside, no other amendments can be brought forward.

Specter’s proposal, which he said still was being developed, would prevent one political party from offering both a first-degree and second-degree amendment in rapid succession. If a first-degree amendment were pending, the only second-degree amendment that would be in order would be one offered by the opposing party.

Specter acknowledged that his plan could preclude Senators from making even routine technical changes to their own amendments, but he said that problem could be overcome by requesting unanimous consent to waive the rule.

Still, Specter apparently has reason to be pessimistic about his plan’s chances. Senate Democrats largely laughed off the proposed rules change.

Said one Senate Democratic aide, “As long as Sen. Specter is around, there’s no threat to long-winded debate in the United States Senate.”

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