Road Map

Posted April 21, 2008 at 6:45pm

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. The Senate Minority Leader comes to the chamber floor to decry the majority’s decision to file cloture on a motion to proceed on a bill, arguing that he and his party are not, as they have been accused of, obstructionists. Rather, they are simply careful legislators who have not had enough time to review this important legislation.

[IMGCAP(1)]“Mr. President, everyone should know that we have cooperated on this bill every step of the way. There was no reason to do a motion to proceed to this. We allowed this to take place in spite of the fact that there were many other things

going on taking the attention of the Senators. We have been very cooperative in offering amendments … I think they should allow us a little bit of time to determine what is in the bill and what should be in the bill. … for my friend … to come here and threaten us that he is going to try to stop debate on this bill is not in keeping with the decorum of the Senate,” the Minority Leader declares.

Although those words might sound like something Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) might have said Monday in response to Democrats’ decision to file cloture on the motion to proceed to a veterans’ benefits bill –– or almost any other Monday so far of the 110th Congress –– they are, in fact, from Aug. 3, 2006.

The Minority Leader then was Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who was responding to a decision by the GOP majority –– then under the control of former Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) –– to move to a bill on the estate tax.

And like his counterpart in 2006, Reid this week defended his decision to move to the bill, which would give benefits to Filipino veterans from World War II, by pointing to the legislation’s long-stalled status, bipartisan support at the committee level and what he views as a broad pattern of minority obstructionism as reasons for filing cloture.

“I would prefer not to have filed cloture. I wish we could have moved on to it. … [But] this is far from the first time the Republican minority” has blocked a simple procedural motion to begin debate on a bill, Reid argued on the floor Monday. “It seems to me what the Republicans want is a graveyard for progress,” he said, adding that “we have had to file cloture and break filibusters 66 times” this year.

Republicans, of course, denied they were obstructing the bill, claiming, as Reid did in 2006, that they simply were preparing to debate the bill and that they were all ready to vote to begin debate, if only the Majority Leader would be more reasonable in his demands.

Veterans’ Affairs ranking member Richard Burr (R-N.C.) defended his Conference, arguing that he was ready to vote for cloture and saw no reason for a cloture motion to have even been filed. “Let me assure the Majority Leader, as the ranking member of the Veterans Committee, I don’t intend to vote against cloture. I intend to vote for cloture. I intend to proceed to the bill. … I don’t think in this case that cloture was necessary,” Burr said in a brief back-and-forth with Reid on the floor, adding that he had objected to moving to the bill under the terms Reid had set.

Both parties seem intent on making process arguments through the remainder of the year –– despite few concrete examples of their political utility. They tend to obscure the more mundane realities of the Senate.

For instance, Reid’s decision late last week to move to the veterans’ bill occurred only after Reid put off consideration of a genetic nondiscrimination measure, which he planned on taking up after the completion of the highway technical corrections bill. That bill was completed late last week.

After years of deadlock on the genetics bill, Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), a member of the committee, were closing in on a deal to move a compromise package, and Reid decided to give the two more time to work out a deal. But with the latest war supplemental –– the next big ticket item on the agenda –– still on hold until the House finishes work on its version, Reid had to bring something to the floor. He espied the long-languishing veterans bill, which was reported out of committee last summer.

Offering benefits to veterans is generally a popular move for Democrats. And the bill provides Reid with an added bonus of putting Republicans in the difficult political spot of having to vote on the Filipino benefits provision.

While most of the Conference supports the bill, several members are upset with the bill’s inclusion of veterans benefits for Filipinos who do not have injuries related to their service. Burr and other opponents of the provision argue that Filipinos who need care for injuries suffered as a result of World War II should get coverage. But with holes in care for vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, now is not the time to expand benefits for others.

Although they have couched their opposition in fiscal terms, Republican leadership aides acknowledge that votes on the bill will be tough for their Conference because Democrats can accuse them of neglecting minority veterans. And in an election year, McConnell and his leadership team are in no mood to put their members in a position to take such a vote.