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Immigration Debate Veering Into Rules Standoff

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

It took about a day for the Senate floor debate over immigration to get twisted into a knot over amendment votes and the chamber’s arcane procedures.

In theory, any amendment could be in order to the pending immigration overhaul on the floor of the chamber. However, under the Senate’s rules, unanimous consent is generally required to set aside the amendment pending on the floor and turn to another one at the same time or set up a list of amendments for votes.

There are exceptions to that rule that only allows one pending first-degree amendment at a time, but the clay pigeon is a matter for another day.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., asked consent to line up five amendments for votes, but he tried to set them up with 60-vote thresholds for the votes, as has become somewhat routine. He faced a Republican objection.

Reid jabbed at a counterproposal offered by Senate Judiciary ranking member Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, in which the Republican floor manager tried to make a similar request with a simple majority vote threshold for adopting each of the amendments in his version of the proposal.

Earlier, a senior Democratic aide had indicated that Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., was objecting to an agreement for a first batch of amendment votes.

“I’m somewhat surprised at this request. how many times have we heard the Republican leader say on this floor and publicly that the new reality in the United States Senate is 60? So I just thought I was following the direction of the majority leader — the Republican leader,” Reid said, in reference to Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. His verbal slip is a reminder of how much more power the leader of the Senate’s minority has than the House.

“I mean, this is what he said. That’s why we’re having 60 votes on virtually everything,” Reid said.

At various points over the years, Reid and his GOP counterpart, McConnell, have emphasized the importance of having 60-vote thresholds to move legislation through the Senate, since that’s the number of votes needed to overcome a filibuster.

“It’s amazing to me that the majority has touted this immigration bill process as one that is open and regular order, but right out of the box … they want to subject our amendments to a filibuster-like 60-vote threshold. So I have to ask who is obstructing now?” Grassley responded to Reid. “There is no reason, particularly in this first week, at the beginning of the process, to be blocking our amendments with a 60-vote margin that’s required when you suppose there is a filibuster.”

That prompted Brian E. Fallon, a spokesman for Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., to respond with a pair of quips on Twitter.

“By new Grassley logic, will he allow us to confirm President’s 3 DC Circuit judges by simple majority?,” Fallon tweeted. “Will Sen McConnell come down to Senate floor and endorse this call for considering legislation by simple majority?”

That’s a rapid response that this afternoon’s floor debate may well resurface in the coming days and weeks as the Senate considers the immigration bill and looks ahead to a potential standoff in July over the chamber’s filibuster rules on nominations.

“Senate Democrats are not content with the additional powers they have — powers greater than those enjoyed by any previous majority — so they intend to manufacture a crisis over nominations as pretext for a power grab,” McConnell said Wednesday morning as part of what’s become daily remarks about Senate procedure.

On Wednesday, Republican Sens. John Barrasso of Wyoming and Roy Blunt of Missouri made related remarks, with the possibility that Senate Democrats may seek to change the rules with a simple majority in July (using the “nuclear option”) to confirm a variety of President Barack Obama’s nominees, including the three D.C. appeals court choices.

On the immigration measure, some Republicans are suggesting that senators should wait for the Congressional Budget Office to score the bill before moving too far down the amendment road. The sparring came one day after senators voted overwhelmingly to proceed to the debate, 84-15.

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