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Reid Eyes Rules Changes to Restrict Amendments

Correction Appended

After nearly seven months of battling Republican filibusters and controversial amendments on the Senate floor, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Friday he may seek to change Senate rules to make it easier to restrict amendments on the floor.

Reid said Rules and Administration Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) would be tasked with exploring what rules changes should be made.

Noting that there has been a “growing breakdown between the majority and minority in terms of how to get things done,” Howard Gantman, Feinstein’s chief of staff for the Rules panel, said the committee would conduct a “comprehensive review” and look at the rules on the germaneness of amendments and how long Senators have to review proposals before voting on them.

“Sen. Feinstein is very serious about looking at the vast range of amendments that are brought in at the last minute that are not germane,” said Gantman. He added that the panel’s focus would be on “how to better get things done.”

Reid spokesman Jim Manley cautioned that Reid “has no intention of unilaterally seeking a rules change.”

However, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) scoffed at the notion of limiting or restricting Senators’ ability to offer amendments, which he likened to freedom of speech.

“Look, nobody’s going to shut anybody up in the Senate,” he said at a press conference Friday. “There’s going to be robust debate. You can just write that down. And I understand Sen. Reid’s frustrations, but we’re not going to establish any speech police in the Senate — not now, not ever.”

Reid apparently reached his boiling point Thursday night when Republicans used Senate budget rules to offer a number of non- germane amendments to a student loan financing bill.

“What went on last night was ridiculous,” Reid said on the Senate floor. “We should change those rules. … We will have to take a look at that.”

Reid said Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and ranking member Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) managed the student loan measure “very well until it ran into the rule that we have here that allows unending amendments on any subject forever, literally, before you get to final passage.”

Because the higher education bill — by virtue of its status as a budget reconciliation measure — was immune to filibuster, Senate rules permitted unlimited amendments to be offered and voted on. On Thursday night, in particular, Senators were given only a few minutes to review the substance of some amendments before they were asked to vote on them.

As is customary with budget and reconciliation measures, Senators engaged in a long series of back-to-back votes, known as a “vote-a-rama,” at the end of the debate. But Democrats said Republicans’ insistence on having 14 non-germane votes — including six related to cutting taxes, three related to immigration and two related to terrorism — was excessive.

When Democrats pushed back with their own non-germane amendment expressing the Senate’s opinion that President Bush should not pardon Vice President Cheney’s former chief of staff, Scooter Libby, Republicans tried to force a vote on former President Bill Clinton’s controversial pardons.

But before the Senate could vote on that, Reid asked that both the Libby vote and the GOP pardons amendment be stricken from the Congressional Record, and the chamber voted on final passage of the bill.

Manley explained: “These so-called vote-a-ramas are bad for the system, and they may lead to bad policy. As have leaders in the past, all Sen. Reid was doing was expressing his frustration at the Republicans’ desire to score cheap political points at the expense of a good-faith effort to pass a bill that will make college education more affordable for more Americans.”

Even though Reid is seeking a Rules panel review, the rules governing Thursday night’s debate actually fall under the Congressional Budget Act.

Correction: July 23, 2007
The article incorrectly described the process for changing rules to the Congressional Budget Act. A budget rule change would not require a new law. Additionally, rules changes only require a simple majority to prevail, but limiting debate, or invoking cloture, on a rules change would have to garner a two-thirds vote to succeed.

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