Rocky Road for Senate Comity

Posted June 15, 2011 at 7:08pm

A “gentlemen’s agreement” reached by Senate Democratic and Republican leaders earlier this year to head off a change to filibuster rules was supposed to usher in a new era of open debate and help clear the way for votes on amendments and nominations.

It hasn’t turned out that way.

While there might not be a technical violation of that agreement, its spirit, at least, appears to be in tatters, with the Senate as gridlocked as ever and only a trickle of votes each week on bills that have little chance of becoming law.

On the one hand, Republicans have repeatedly used their power to hold nominations hostage for policy reasons and have launched massive barrages of political amendments to garden-variety Senate bills. The tactic has caused some Democrats to accuse Republicans of filibustering by amendment.

“The spirit of the agreement was they’d get amendments and we would get bills done,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the No. 3 Democrat. “The way it’s turned out, they are getting their amendments, but the bills are still getting blocked.”

Even when both sides agree on something — like the gentlemen’s agreement itself — they still have to jump through hoops to get it done.

“When we have to file cloture on the gentleman’s agreement for rules changes, it’s an indication that you know we still haven’t reached that level of nirvana that we’re all praying for,” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin said. A cloture motion is a motion to limit debate, or beat back an attempted filibuster.

The Illinois Democrat stopped short of saying his party should have taken a harder line in their negotiations on the rules.

“I’m not going to second-guess what we did. I am disappointed that so many nominations and so much legislative activity has been bottled up on the floor,” Durbin said. “It clearly is an effort on the other side to stop us from legislating and filling spots in this administration.”

Republicans have their complaints, too. They note that while Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has largely lived up to his promise to rarely “fill the tree” to cut off amendments, he has repeatedly maneuvered to prevent votes on difficult amendments, frustrating Republicans. Senate Democrats have also avoided taking up even basic measures, such as passing a budget resolution, in part because it would expose their many vulnerable incumbents to unlimited, politically charged amendments.

Republicans defended their decisions to block various nominations, including the Commerce secretary position in a dispute over trade, and their pre-emptive hold on any future nominee to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

“There was no discussion that we wouldn’t block nominations. In fact, that’s what nominations are for,” said Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), who negotiated the nominations part of the gentlemen’s agreement with Schumer.

He noted that Sens. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) recently blocked a Justice Department nomination because they were upset they had not yet gotten a response to their request for information on the issue of Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

“That’s perfectly legitimate,” he said.

On the larger agreement for Republicans to generally allow bills to come to the floor without forcing Reid to jump through time-consuming procedural hoops on routine motions to proceed: “We’ve moved in that direction,” Alexander said, but he acknowledged, “It hasn’t worked perfectly.”

“The main reason there’s so few amendments is because there’s so little to vote on, there’s so little to amend,” Alexander said. “Sen. Reid is bringing nothing up. … It’s hard to amend nothing. … The Democrats, who are completely in charge of setting the agenda, don’t have an agenda.”

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said Senators in both parties wish the chamber was more productive.

“I think there’s probably frustration on all sides,” he said.

Cornyn, the GOP’s campaign chief, said Democrats “feel vulnerable because they’ve got 23 up” for re-election in 2012.

However, one aspect of that gentlemen’s agreement — a bill eliminating about 400 positions from Senate confirmation requirements — is likely to come to the floor in the next few weeks.