Harry Reid Changes Rules in Floor Fight With Mitch McConnell

Posted October 6, 2011 at 11:27pm

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) executed a rare power play to box in the GOP on Thursday night, setting a new precedent that effectively nukes a rarely used procedural motion and drawing a vociferous rebuke from Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Reid’s move to effectively neuter the obscure procedural motion — one that has not been successfully used since 1941 and had not even been attempted this year before today — came after months of frustration over GOP stalling tactics, Democrats said.

“This was not just about this bill,” a senior Democratic aide said. “This was a shot across the bow to Republicans who have been emptying the toolbox to block even the most bipartisan, job-creating, common-sense pieces of legislation.”

The dispute erupted as Democrats sought to wrap up final passage of legislation regarding the manipulation of Chinese currency, which had cleared a cloture vote of 62-38 earlier in the day.

McConnell insisted on a series of votes on motions to suspend the rules to pass unrelated amendments, even though cloture had already been filed. The rare maneuver requires a 67-vote threshold to pass.

The senior Democratic aide accused McConnell of trying to derail the currency bill after his own Conference bucked his wishes and voted for cloture. “He reached for the only tool he had to try and derail this bill,” the aide said. “We took it away from him.”

Reid warned on the floor that allowing unchecked procedural motions after 60 Senators have voted to invoke cloture could lead to unlimited amendments with no way to cut off debate, and he effectively blew up the procedure with a precedent-setting counterattack.

When the presiding officer at the time, Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), ruled that the motions sought by McConnell were not dilatory, a term of art meaning that they are intended to delay, Reid moved that the ruling of the chair be sustained. That led to a simple-majority vote that he wanted to lose and did, 48-51. The move set the precedent that such motions will no longer be allowed.

Reid’s power move appeared similar to a proposed “nuclear option” of changing the Senate filibuster rules with a simple majority. Reid did effectively change chamber rules with a simple majority vote, but the filibuster was unaffected. He said he still believes in the 60-vote rule and the right to filibuster. He also said he still disagrees with a GOP proposal from several years ago to do away with the filibuster for judicial nominations — the original “nuclear option.”

Reid also noted that there have been several previous occasions in which a majority has overturned the chair’s ruling on a procedural matter.

During a rare, lengthy floor debate over the Senate’s dysfunction from Members of both parties, McConnell accused Reid of changing the precedents of the Senate simply to avoid voting on the motions to suspend the rules sought by the GOP. He also accused Reid of fundamentally turning the Senate into the House.

“Look, let’s don’t change this place,” McConnell said on the floor. “America doesn’t need less debate. It needs more debate. … I think we made a big mistake tonight. And as soon as we all kind of cool off and think about it over the weekend, I hope we’ll undo what we did tonight because it’s not in the best interest of this institution or the American people.”

Reid expressed frustration with Republican filibusters on previously uncontroversial bills. “When I try to have an open amendment process, it is a road to nowhere,” he said.

He also complained that Republicans have increased attempts to add amendments after cloture has been invoked. “This has to come to an end. This is not a way to legislate,” he said, although Republicans noted they had not offered any such post-cloture motions before in this Congress.

A Democratic aide contended that Democrats had agreed with Republicans to vote on seven of the nine motions the GOP wanted, including the president’s jobs bill, only to have McConnell change which motions he wanted to offer. In the end, an added benefit for the Democrats of nuking the motions was that it allowed them to avoid a vote on the original jobs bill, which is opposed by several in the party. Reid would prefer a vote on a revised version that he introduced this week that has more Democratic support.

A senior GOP aide disputed the Democrats’ account. “There was never any agreement,” the aide said. “If there was, we’d be done voting by now.”

One of the amendments Reid refused to allow concerns the regulation of farm dust and has bipartisan support. The senior Republican aide said Reid simply nuked the process because he didn’t want to lose a vote on the dust amendment.

“Democrats didn’t want to take a vote on the Johanns amendment on farm dust,” the aide said. “They were concerned because it probably had 67 votes since so many Dems supported it.”

Adding that amendment could have potentially emboldened Republicans to force assorted tough votes in an attempt to sink bills after they receive cloture in the future. Such moves would undermine Reid’s control of the Senate floor.

Reid said he was prepared to accept amendments but couldn’t get consent from all Democrats to vote on some offered by the GOP. And he complained that McConnell’s gambit to force a vote on the jobs package effectively froze the amendment process.

McConnell argued that the price of being in the majority is having to take bad votes, adding that the fundamental problem with the Senate is that Democrats aren’t willing to do so.

After the dispute, Reid suggested that the Senate return Tuesday for a final vote on the underlying Chinese currency legislation, as well as votes on a revised version of the president’s jobs bill and pending free-trade agreements.

Senate Democratic leaders are scheduled to meet with President Barack Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden at 10:25 a.m. today in the Oval Office. The meeting was originally planned for late Thursday afternoon, but it was postponed.