New York Times: Meant to Be Broken? Maybe Not This Time

Posted on February 5, 2011

WASHINGTON — The mechanics of legislating should be simple: bring a bill to the floor, fight over amendments, vote the measure up or down and move on to the next one.

But that by-the-civics-book approach has been largely nonexistent in the Senate as Democrats and Republicans instead engaged in partisan procedural brawls that tied the place in knots and left lawmakers in both parties frustrated and fuming.

Now, though, it appears the Senate may be turning over a new leaf by going back to the basics, an approach that a very preliminary review indicates might have merit.

Under a rules truce struck in the Senate late last month, minority Republicans allowed a long-stalled aviation policy measure to come to the floor without a filibuster as the Senate’s first legislative business of 2011. In exchange, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, has so far let Republicans offer ample amendments, including one politically charged whopper that would have repealed the new health care law. That proposal was quickly swept aside, and lawmakers went about the business of the aviation bill.

“It worked,” Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, a member of the Republican leadership, marveled about what is known on Capitol Hill as following regular order. “No shenanigans.”

Last year, the situation would probably have unfolded very differently.

Democrats would have tried to bring up the bill but then taken parliamentary steps to block amendments, to prevent Republicans from having an opportunity to make a political point. In retaliation, Republicans would have forced Democrats to assemble 60 votes just to get the bill to the floor. Then days, if not weeks, would have passed with nothing much transpiring as lawmakers looked for a way out of their procedural morass.

Though the Senate still has to slog through a list of amendments to the Federal Aviation Administration bill, the end result could be a measure that both sides agree received a fair and ample hearing, even if no one is entirely pleased with the legislative outcome.

“It is encouraging,” said Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate, who helped to negotiate rules changes intended to improve procedural civility.

Democrats were not thrilled with the prospect of allowing Senate Republicans to force a vote on repealing the health care law. But Democrats figured that they had the votes to defeat the proposal and might as well get it over with since Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, was going to press the issue until he got his vote.

In the end, Democrats found that allowing the amendment to come to a vote was somewhat like a trip to the dentist — it didn’t really hurt all that bad. Democrats who are not part of the leadership also have something to gain from a more open approach because it allows them a chance to offer amendments to measures, opportunities that they, too, were denied in the past.

Republicans were also satisfied with the way things played out since they got the chance to at least have their say.

“This is the way the Senate ought to work,” said Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the third-ranking Republican. “An important bill got to the floor. It is getting a whole variety of amendments on everything from the Davis-Bacon Act to health care. We will end up passing a bill and take a step that we should have taken some time ago.

“Truth is, it is not taking any longer than it used to because we were just sitting around doing nothing,” Mr. Alexander said.

The new agreement is in its infancy and could easily collapse in the coming weeks. Across the Rotunda, the new House Republican majority has pledged a more open floor debate but has already found fulfilling the letter of its promise to be difficult.

The Senate has gone the traditional route in the recent past. After Democrats expanded their numbers in the 2008 Senate elections, Mr. Reid began 2009 by opening the floor to more amendments. But the atmosphere quickly deteriorated in the fight over the economic stimulus and health care measures, and the result was that the Senate faced scores of filibuster fights over the next two years.

But there are reasons the truce could hold this time. With the Senate more closely divided at 53 to 47, Democrats can no longer hope to pick off just one or two Republicans to reach the 60-vote threshold to overcome a filibuster. They need more consensus to move bills, and a more open and equal floor process is one way to build that consensus.

In addition, the Congressional agenda headed into a presidential election year is much narrower than it was in the first two years of President Obama’s tenure. Then, Democrats pushed the economic stimulus, new regulations governing Wall Street and the health care measure, to name just three of the more contentious bills. The Senate can afford to take its time on measures like the aviation bill.

Whatever the reason, lawmakers said that the way the Senate is operating in its early weeks bodes well for the future, when more difficult subjects like deficit reduction await.

“It is creating a better environment for dealing with the really tough issues we have coming,” Mr. Alexander said.