Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Farm Dusts the US Senate

It was a chaotic night last night in the United States Senate, with one of the most heated and important debates that chamber has seen in a few years. I was over at the Heritage Foundation for a screening of part of the 1978 Panama Treaty debate between Ronald Reagan and Bill Buckley, with Lee Edwards, Grover Norquist, and Fred Barnes participating in a discussion panel afterwards, when I got a few texts telling me to turn on C-SPAN. I checked into my Twitter feed to see what was going on, and reporters in the Senate press gallery were uncharacteristically active for a Thursday night. Indeed, they were even coming across as excited. I took an opportunity during question-and-answers at the event and slipped away to go plop down in front of a television and computer and figure out what was going on.

The Senate was in discussion on the Chinese currency manipulation bill last night. The Republicans had introduced a group of amendments to attach to the bill, including a procedural vote on the Obama jobs plan--as the President continues to yell at Congress to pass his bill, Senator McConnell (R-KY) decided to obey our commander-in-chief and introduce a vote on the bill, which would have surely failed to pass and embarrass the president and some Senate Democrats. Republicans and Democrats had been negotiating these amendments all day, and by Thursday night seemed to have reached an agreement. At the last moment, though, Senator Johanns (R-Neb.) introduced an amendment regarding EPA regulations on farm dust. Yes, farm dust. Democrats did not want to vote on that amendment, so they tried to substitute an amendment offered by Senator Paul (R-KY) on the Federal Reserve. This set off a complicated and legalistic battle on the rules and arcane procedures of our Senate, and led to an unscripted and tense battle of words between the senators.

Procedurally, Senator Reid (D-NV) raised a point of order against the GOP's motion to suspend the rules in order to introduce the amendments, including McConnell's amendment to introduce President Obama's jobs package. Reid's argument was that the GOP's motion was "germane" as it was only intended to slow down the passage of the Chinese currency bill. The chair, on the advice of the parliamentarian, disagreed with Reid's point of order. Senator Reid then pulled an unprecedented maneuver, and motioned to overrule the decision of the chair--after some arm wrangling with moderates, 51 Democrats voted to overrule, 48 Republicans voted against. The Republicans were fuming, and for once the normally-empty chamber was stacked with members of the Senate, watching the debate unfold. C-SPAN, the Twitteratti, and most people were completely baffled as to what was going on in the cascade of events. Initially many people thought that Reid had finally pulled out the famed "nuclear option" and ended the ability to filibuster in the Senate.

Rather, what Senator Reid did was change a precedent in the chamber. While historically the majority party could block amendments to bills by the minority, it could not stop motions to suspend the rules in order to introduce amendments. Now it can, and it has become much more difficult for the minority party to change legislation once it has been introduced. Senator Reid's aides spent most of the day on Thursday advising him against this move, fearing the debilitating position it will leave Democrats in once they are again the minority party. For an hour and a half afterwards, Reid and McConnell, with several others senators chiming in, debated over this procedural change and even the nature of the United States Senate itself. It was fantastic; watch it here. The limiting of the powers of the minority party will indeed haunt the Democrats whenever they are returned to the minority (probably 2013); for the rest of this term, it is likely going to make things even more tense and combative in the already-tense chamber. Additionally, this move will likely diminish the role of many of the Senate's moderates who had previously negotiated the major deals to avoid any type of wonkish procedural showdown like this---McCain, Snowe, Nelson, Collins, Lieberman, Pryor, McCaskill, Warner, Graham, and Grassley. It will be interesting to see what things are like when the chamber reconvenes to vote next week. All of this over farm dust!
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