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Road Map: Magic Number Fluid on GOP Amendments

How many votes on Republican amendments does it take before Senate GOP centrists screw up enough courage to vote for a bill?

[IMGCAP(1)]It’s a trick question. If we’re talking about the omnibus spending bill now on the Senate floor, it’s 24. On the economic stimulus, it was 21. For children’s health care, 13.

So, forget about 60.

For Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) the magic number is quickly becoming, not the number of votes necessary to overcome filibusters, but whatever number of amendments Senate Republicans decide is enough to finally make them comfortable letting the legislation pass. In a word, Republicans say that number constitutes what’s “reasonable,— which clearly is in the eye of the beholder.

“We’re still in the you’ll-know-it-when-you-see-it category, but based on the past couple of weeks, [20 or more] seems to be the number,— Reid spokesman Jim Manley said.

However you slice it, the people who appear to be in control of that “reasonable— number are Senate GOP moderates and dealmakers who seem to want much of the chamber’s agenda to pass but don’t want to run afoul of their more conservative colleagues who have been trying futilely to bring those bills down.

But Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) didn’t seem very grateful that GOP omnibus supporters forced an extended debate so that he and other conservatives could continue attacking it.

“Over $400 billion with over 9,000 earmarks they wanted to rush through last week,— DeMint said on the Senate floor Monday. “But because of people back home, some were shamed into saying they couldn’t vote for it unless we had a longer process with more amendments.—

DeMint didn’t give his own leadership any credit for begging the six or more GOP omnibus supporters last week to deny Democrats the 60th vote they needed to overcome a threatened GOP filibuster, but Democrats did.

“The Republican leadership put the screws on their own Members to make getting more amendments voted on a party position,— complained one senior Senate Democratic aide. “Democrats were attempting to have an open amendment process that would allow Republicans the amendment votes they needed to vote yes’ on the bill, but it would have been helpful to know that list or that number on Tuesday rather than on Thursday.—

Indeed, Democrats allowed 12 GOP amendment votes on the omnibus last week, but were told Thursday — moments before calling a vote to pass the bill — that Republicans needed eight to 10 more amendments before those in the party who support the bill would be wiling to vote for it. The GOP ended up getting 13 additional amendment votes for this week.

But it’s not as if the people withholding their “aye— votes are the same ones offering amendments.

GOP centrists such as Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine) have not offered any amendments on the Senate floor, even as they condition their willingness to help Democrats win tough votes on the ability of their colleagues to offer more proposals.

The winners in the continuing war over “minority rights— appear to be conservative stalwarts, such as DeMint, Sens. Tom Coburn (Okla.), David Vitter (La.), John Ensign (Nev.) and John Thune (S.D.), along with Republican presidential also-ran John McCain (Ariz.) and Minority Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.).

Of the 69 GOP amendment votes this year, those seven Senators account for 42 of the amendments, or more than 60 percent.

Coburn has been the biggest beneficiary, with 11 votes. Kyl comes in second, with seven, if expected votes this week are counted.

“The reason there are so many amendments is because of the magnitude of these things,— said on senior Senate GOP aide. Bills like the stimulus and the omnibus, for example, are “covering so much ground, it requires a significant amount of amendments.—

Historically, Republicans said, the Senate has spent much longer than a week or so on major legislation, but over the past six years, at least, Majority Leaders in both parties have sought to shorten the debate process in order to process more legislation on the floor.

“We’re just returning to a more normal floor process,— said another senior Senate GOP aide. “This is supposed to be the greatest deliberative body in the world.—

The irony, of course, is that even if their amendments were adopted, the chances of Senate GOP conservatives voting for the underlying Democratic-sponsored bill are still remote.

But Snowe said on Friday that she was willing to be a party girl to help her fellow Republicans make “reasonable requests to make sure minority views are aired.— But she said she made clear to GOP leaders that wasn’t going to help them block it forever.

Similarly, Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) — who has offered no amendments this year — sent strong signals all last week that he wanted to vote for the omnibus, despite the thousands of earmarks and 6 percent increase in funding that appear so odious to other Republicans.

He is on the Appropriations Committee after all, putting him in that special class of GOP Members who actually have a hand in writing bills. But, as one of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) right-hand men, he could hardly stick it to his party by helping the Democrats pass the bill before conservatives found their sweet spot on the number of amendments they wanted.

“I’d like to be able to vote for the bill, but I want to make sure that we have a chance to offer the amendments,— Alexander said last week. It was unclear whether Alexander will vote for final passage this week, but his public statements have indicated the possibility that he would do so.

Though Alexander has been courted for his vote, the more likely GOP votes in favor of the omnibus are Snowe, Appropriations ranking member Thad Cochran (Miss.) and Sens. Richard Shelby (Ala.) and Kit Bond (Mo.). Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Arlen Specter (Pa.) are also in play.

That illustrates a potential conundrum for Republicans, because, as time has worn on, they have lost more and more Members on spending bills in particular. That situation makes them partially reliant on Democratic defectors to help them hold the line.

On a good day, Reid only needs two Republicans to break the 60-vote threshold. Only three GOP Senators helped Democrats pass the economic stimulus bill last month, while at least six or more appear ready to support the omnibus — the majority of those being appropriators.

That has been a big help — despite the delay on the omnibus — because at least three Democrats have promised to vote against it. A few others have said they are wavering.

“It got so bad for Reid that you had Democrats backing away from— ending debate, said one knowledgeable Senate GOP aide of the omnibus. “And that’s going to be our challenge to continue to replicate that.—

Though Republicans have won precious few amendment votes, Democrats of all stripes are in a bind over them — especially those up for re-election in 2010 as they end up taking tough positions on Congressional pay, gun rights and abortion.

Complicating their situation on the omnibus is Reid’s insistence that no amendments can be adopted — a decision designed to send the House-passed bill directly to the president and avoid a House-Senate conference.

But the National Republican Senatorial Committee clearly doesn’t care whether Reid wants changes or not, and spent last week — and presumably this week — sending out missives on potentially vulnerable Democrats who took hard votes for their party.

But there may be a light at the end of tunnel for Senate Democrats. Rather than barely squeaking by with 60, they stand poised this week to pass a major spending bill by comparatively comfortable margin — 62 or 63.

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