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A Plea for the Old School Senate: Senators Really, Really Want to Move Spending Bills This Time

Meeting on nomination rules changes gives way to talk of spending bills, comity

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., brought a chart of the Senate floor to the Rules Committee. (Rules and Administration Committee screenshot)
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., brought a chart of the Senate floor to the Rules Committee. (Rules and Administration Committee screenshot)

What could have been a contentious meeting about shortening Senate debate time for nominations turned into more of a bipartisan conversation among some of the most senior senators at taking another shot at moving regular spending bills.

“Let’s pick an appropriation bill, put some training wheels on it and head it to the floor. Let’s see how this works,” Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin said. “We’ve got to educate ourselves.”

The comments from the Illinois senator, who is the top Democrat on the Appropriations subcommittee responsible for Pentagon spending, crystallized much of the conversation at a Wednesday afternoon Rules and Administration Committee markup. The actual agenda item was advancing, along party lines, a resolution from Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., designed to truncate Senate debate time on many nominations.

But given the substantial overlap in membership between the Rules panel and the Appropriations Committee, as well as the number of years of combined Senate service represented on the dais, what happened instead was a call to restore some semblance of legislative order.

Watch: Senate GOP’s Reasons For Cloture Rules Change

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“I suggested in our Republican lunch today that we have a discussion amongst ourselves about what the amendment process actually is when appropriations bills come to the floor because so many senators haven’t seen it before,” said Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander. “We could change all the rules in the book, but if Alexander objects to the Durbin amendment, then Durbin objects to the Alexander amendment, then the whole Energy and Water bill stops.”

The Tennessee Republican was not, of course, pulling the name of one of the 12 annual spending bills out of a hat. He is the chairman of the Energy-Water subcommittee and has been telling reporters this week he hopes to be near the front of the line for potential floor consideration.

Alexander, who helped author what was then a bipartisan plan that limited the number of hours for post-cloture debate in the 113th Congress on which Lankford based his proposal, came prepared for the markup with one of the more ironic charts in Senate history.

The Tennessee Republican had a chart showing a C-SPAN2 screenshot of what appeared to be one of the seemingly endless quorum calls on the Senate floor.

There was a degree of waxing poetic from the senior senators, but also a sense that it was worth taking the gamble on moving to bills after a huddle between Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, and the Appropriations Committee leadership on Tuesday.

“We will be going to these appropriation bills,” McConnell, R-Ky., said. “We had a very constructive meeting in my office yesterday with Sen. Shelby and Sen. Leahy and the minority leader, and expressed an interest in getting on appropriation bills.”

The idea would be to try to get on the spending bills without facing filibuster threats on motions to proceed, and without the measures emerging from the Senate Appropriations panel with particularly noxious policy riders that would doom any shot at getting 60 votes.

McConnell, who has kept his seats on both the Rules and Appropriations panels while serving as majority leader, also said senators would need to be able to get votes on amendments without objections.

“That’s not a rules issue, that’s a behavioral issue,” he said.

“Think about it, 12 appropriation bills coming to the Senate floor subject to debate and amendments? It’ll be like the Senate of old,” Durbin said. “I think that’ll build up more bipartisanship and camaraderie and trust.”

Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby seemed up for Durbin’s challenge, pinning much of the Senate’s recent failures on the breakdown in debating spending bills.

“When the appropriation process breaks down, the Senate breaks down,” Shelby said.

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