Reid Finally Wins Support for Lands Package

Posted January 11, 2009 at 2:33pm

Armed with a stronger majority and a handful of GOP defectors, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Sunday successfully broke Sen. Tom Coburn’s (R-Okla.) year-long filibuster of a massive public lands bill.

Senators, in a rare weekend session, voted 66-12 to proceed to debate the omnibus lands measure, which is expected to clear the chamber on final passage later in the week. The otherwise benign measure has been the staging ground for a bitter — and sometimes personal — feud between Reid and Coburn for months.

“This was good bipartisan legislation,” Reid said in a statement after the vote. “In fact, 80 of the more than 160 bills were sponsored by Republican Senators. I am happy that after months of delay we will finally be moving forward.”

Coburn had been using the chamber’s rules and arguments of minority rights to frustrate Reid’s efforts to pass the package of more than 100 smaller bills covering lands in Nevada, Wyoming and other Western states. The fight between the two lawmakers, both of whom are masters of the chamber’s parliamentary procedures, had become increasingly acrimonious, and Reid’s repeated efforts to force the issue had irked many Republicans, despite their support for the bill.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — who over the past several years has himself been at odds with Coburn — last year rallied his Conference to the conservative gadfly’s defense, arguing that Reid was attempting to limit the ability of the minority party to amend legislation.

But with the GOP’s numbers decreased thanks to last year’s election and the defection of more than a quarter of the Republican Conference — including Sens. John Barrasso (Wyo.), Mike Crapo (Idaho), Bob Bennett (Utah), Orrin Hatch (Utah), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Dick Lugar (Ind.), Olympia Snowe (Maine), Susan Collins (Maine), Mike Enzi (Wyo.), James Risch (Idaho), Roger Wicker (Miss.) and Thad Cochran (Miss.) — Reid was able to harpoon the proverbial white whale that had eluded him for months.

But the Majority Leader’s victory could come at a high cost. Scheduling the chamber’s first vote on a Sunday and using the 111th session’s inaugural floor debate as a demonstration of his newfound legislating strength angered many Republicans. GOP lawmakers have openly said Reid’s decision to pursue his fight with Coburn so quickly in the new Congress was undercutting the bipartisan atmosphere the chamber typically enjoys in its opening days.

“There’s absolutely no reason to have a Sunday vote,” McConnell’s spokesman Don Stewart warned earlier this week. “It doesn’t help the mood. We’re calling for bipartisan things, not partisan things.”

It is also unclear what, if any, effect Reid’s successful defeat of Coburn in such a dramatic fashion may have on President-elect Barack Obama’s efforts to build relationships with the Republican side of the aisle. Republicans have largely heaped praise on Obama for his willingness to include them in the process, but have continued to express skepticism over whether those overtures will translate into bipartisanship in the Senate.

National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) said he remains unconvinced Reid and other Democratic leaders are as committed to putting aside partisanship as Obama has appeared to be.

Bipartisanship is “a two way street,” Cornyn said, arguing that while Republicans may be willing to put aside their repeated use of filibusters to tie the chamber in knots, Democrats should allow the minority more amendments and a stronger seat at the legislative table in general. Without comity, “it becomes a battle of who can muster the votes to defeat cloture,” Cornyn said.

When asked if Senate Democrats had demonstrated they would be willing to do so, Cornyn said, “not yet, no.”