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Freshmen Gripe Over Process but Don’t Block Debt Deal

Less than 48 hours to debate perhaps the most far-reaching budget bill in a generation is not what freshman Republican Senators had in mind when they ran for office in 2010.

With a complicated, multifaceted deal to raise the debt ceiling consummated Sunday night and fast-moving Senate consideration of the agreement, Republican Senators unhappy with the substance of the compromise were additionally jolted by negotiations that shunned the public committee and floor debate process in favor of last-minute brinksmanship and horse-trading among just a handful of players.

“We actually do have a special committee set up here — it’s called Congress, it’s called the Senate,” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said in a backhanded swipe at a component of the deal that calls for Congress to create a new joint deficit reduction committee. “We should have used that process properly, out in the open, where the American people can see what’s happening as opposed to all of a sudden having a solution that’s going to be dumped in our laps. And we’re going to have to decide here very quickly, without having full debate, and that’s just a real shame. That is not the way this place should work.”

Throughout 2009 and 2010, Republicans perpetually grumbled at the cloaked nature of private negotiations on major legislation, particularly President Barack Obama’s health care law, and complained about last-minute floor debates. They accused Democrats of scheduling quick votes within hours of a bill becoming available. House Republicans, promising more transparency when they took over the chamber in January, instituted a rule requiring legislation be available for review for 72 hours before holding a vote.

But the House GOP leadership was forced to make an exception to that rule this week to ensure that the debt ceiling legislation could clear Congress in time to meet today’s Treasury deadline. The Senate had slightly more time to consider the bill, but it fell short of the open process many freshman Republicans ran on last year when they promised tea party supporters that they would help usher in a new era of transparent government.

Sen. Mike Lee (Utah) said he “feared” the debt ceiling debate would unfold in this manner. However, he and other Republican Senators with tea party ties indicated they were resigned to allowing the Senate to hold a quick vote because they did not want to risk the government defaulting on its obligations if Congress did not raise the debt limit. Those Senators could have forced days of additional debate on the measure, if they wanted to use the parliamentary tools at their disposal. 

“I’ve expressed frustration in recent weeks over the fact that rather than having legislation proposed, introduced on the floor, open to amendments, debate and discussion, we’ve been told to wait, and then told to wait more, until here we are, 36 hours or so before the debt limit deadline,” Lee said. “That’s been [a] source of frustration to me.”

Sen. Jim DeMint, a senior Member who is popular among tea party activists, had particularly harsh words for the process surrounding the debt ceiling negotiations. The South Carolina Republican said unveiling a bill so close to the deadline virtually ensured that opponents of the deal would be rendered powerless to push for changes, given the political and economic ramifications of default.

“They kept all of us out of it, pushed us up against a deadline, scared the heck out of the American people and are trying to force it through. So I think it’s an insulting process,” DeMint said. “The process is insulting to the country that’s supposed to be the model of democracy. The greatest deliberative body over here hasn’t deliberated anything.”

The debt ceiling votes in each chamber were preceded by weeks of leadership-level negotiations on the debt ceiling deal that excluded the vast majority of Members. The first round of talks consisted of a small working group of Members — mostly leaders — led by Vice President Joseph Biden. That was followed by bicameral, bipartisan leadership talks led by Obama, which was then pared down to just the president and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) before slightly expanding again last week to include the leaders of both parties in both chambers.

Sen. Marco Rubio, former Speaker of the Florida House, was among the few not bothered by the process, perhaps because he has served as a legislative leader. Rubio said flatly that no deal of this “magnitude” could be engineered without depending on a handful of people alone in a room.

“That’s really what matters is the outcome, more than just the process,” said Rubio, who nevertheless opposes the deal.

But Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), more representative of her freshman class, said process does matter, even as she noted that her party’s leadership worked hard and should be commended for what it accomplished. She essentially described the debt ceiling debate as a learning experience.

“One of the things I’ve thought — being a new Member, just watching the process — I’d like to see, going forward, more of these negotiations be open, open for public consumption,” Ayotte said. “Because I think that would actually make it clear what people’s positions are as we go along, and I think it would give people more transparency and openness, which would be a good thing.”

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