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McConnell Tactic Roils 9/11 Debate

In a break with the deference usually afforded the Senate Majority Leader, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Wednesday employed a rare and unexpected procedural tactic to force his colleagues to vote on a series of GOP anti-terrorism proposals.

McConnell’s maneuver to file cloture, or limit debate, on a group of Republican amendments to the 9/11 bill came as a surprise to many in both parties and sent a ripple through a chamber that traditionally gives the majority party the power to control votes on legislation. The Republican power play is just the latest in a series of GOP efforts to challenge the narrow Democratic advantage held by Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.).

McConnell said he was taking the unusual step because the two parties were unable to reach an agreement on how to best proceed on the bill to implement the 9/11 commission’s anti-terrorism recommendations.

Republicans, he said, want to vote on the GOP amendments but did not want to delay progress on the underlying bill. And McConnell indicated that Senate Democrats were blocking Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) from getting a vote on various terrorism-related proposals — which McConnell packaged into one amendment before filing the motion to invoke cloture.

“Voting on this amendment won’t slow down the bill,” McConnell said on the floor. “We’re not interested in doing that. We’ll gladly vitiate cloture in exchange for a unanimous consent vote on this amendment.”

Democrats, however, were quick to push back.

“You’d think that after two and a half years of inaction [on the 9/11 commission recommendations] Senate Republicans would want to heed the call of the 9/11 families and get this bill passed,” said Reid spokesman Rodell Mollineau. “Instead, they’ve been stalling, saber-rattling about vetoes and filibusters, and looking for ways to bring the bill down.”

But McConnell explained that he needed to force a vote on the Cornyn amendment because Reid was poised to file a motion to bring debate on the bill to a close — a move that would likely have precluded any vote on the GOP proposal because of strict germaneness rules for post-cloture debate.

Though chamber rules allow any Senator to file motions to begin or end debate, customarily Senators abide by an unwritten rule that permits only the Majority Leader — in this case Reid — to offer such procedural motions on what, how and when the Senate will debate a particular bill or amendment.

McConnell spokesman Don Stewart defended the action by saying throughout history Senators in the minority had on occasion exercised their right to offer procedural motions traditionally reserved for the Majority Leader.

Despite those GOP arguments to the contrary, Republicans are clearly trying to send an outward signal that the Democrats’ control of the Senate is tenuous.

McConnell has employed a series of procedural tactics in recent weeks to try to undermine the majority Democrats, who control the chamber’s agenda by a 51-49 margin. Most notably, McConnell rallied the GOP Conference — and brought the Senate to a standstill — to oppose Reid’s efforts to begin debating President Bush’s proposed troop “surge” in Iraq last month.

In this case, however, McConnell’s maneuver Wednesday surprised even Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins, who as ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee was managing the bill on the floor for the GOP.

“I’m very sympathetic to the concerns of the Republican leader about trying to move forward with some votes,” Collins said on the floor. “I do wish that he had discussed his approach with the managers of this bill since he’s taken us completely by surprise on the Senate floor.”

Still, Collins said McConnell had “raised an important issue that our Members deserve to have votes on the important issues that are before us, and if we’re going to complete action on this bill by the end of the week, we need to start voting.”

Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) did not immediately react on the floor, and a call to his office was not returned by press time Wednesday evening.

Cornyn’s consolidated amendment would criminalize terrorist recruitment, allow suspected terrorists to be deported immediately if their visas are revoked and make it a crime to reward the families of suicide bombers after a bombing has taken place, among other things.

The Texas Republican introduced his amendments Friday and spoke on the floor in favor of them on Monday and to the entire GOP Conference on Tuesday, his spokesman said. It was unclear, however, when negotiations began with Democrats on whether to hold floor votes on the proposals.

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