Robert Novak

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Sen. Arlen Specter, at age 78 suffering from cancer, was feeling miserable Monday following chemotherapy the previous Friday. But believing the best antidote was hard work, Specter took the Senate floor with a speech different in kind from the partisan oratory now customary in the chamber.

Specter, a Republican centrist, never has been much of a partisan, but during five terms he has become a protector of the Senate's faded reputation as the "world's greatest deliberative body." On Monday, Specter deplored Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's use of a parliamentary device called "filling the tree" to prevent the Republican minority from offering amendments to a bill.

As Specter spoke, the Senate chamber typically was empty except for freshman Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin, there as presiding officer. Specter departed from Senate self-congratulation: "The American people live under the illusion that we have a United States Senate. The facts show that the Senate is realistically dysfunctional. It is on life support, perhaps even moribund. The only facet of Senate bipartisanship is the conspiracy of successive Republican and Democratic leaders to employ this procedural device known as filling the tree. It is known that way to insiders, and it is incomprehensible to outsiders."

The device was used last week when Reid called up the bill to control global warming, producing the state of futility that has haunted Reid's year and a half as majority leader. Characteristically, Reid neither found support to pass this bill nor attempted a compromise with opponents. Debating an energy tax as gasoline prices hit four dollars defied political logic. But Sen. Barbara Boxer, chairman of the Environment Committee, insisted. Reid bowed to her.

To prevent his Democratic colleagues from facing difficult amendments, Reid filled the tree with interlocking amendments that stave off all other proposed changes. The procedure has been used by majority leaders of both parties since 1985, but never as often as Reid. This marked the 12th time he has resorted to the device.

What followed illustrates the decline of the Senate under Reid. The Senate fell far short of the 60 votes needed to close debate on the bill. While Reid blamed Republican intransigence, 10 Democratic senators -- including five-term liberal stalwart Carl Levin of Michigan -- wrote Reid last Friday telling him they "cannot support final passage of the bill" because of its economic impact on their states. Reid set aside climate change and moved to the bill imposing an excess profits tax on oil companies. He next asked the Senate to close off debate Tuesday and end the non-filibuster, an effort that predictably fell short of the needed 60 senators.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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