Robert Novak

Even for the feckless Senate, last week was extraordinary. When Republicans contended Reid broke his pledge to confirm three of President Bush's appeals court nominees by Memorial Day, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell retaliated by requiring the entire climate-change bill to be read into the record (consuming over 10 hours). A half-century ago when I covered the Senate under Lyndon B. Johnson, such an event would have been headline news. Last week, it was barely noticed.

An unusual aspect of the current parliamentary situation is that the climate-change bill remains the pending business of the Senate because of Republican refusal to let Reid dispose of it. The GOP strategy is to keep the issue at hand because of its political toxicity. Specter, trying to be an old-fashioned legislator, really wants to detoxify the bill but cannot because of the no-amendment rule. On Tuesday, he wrote asking for hearings on his 16-month-old proposal to prohibit the majority leader from filling the tree.

The defense of Reid's conduct is that he is hampered by a one-vote majority and will be less restricted once this year's elections multiply Democrats on hand. But LBJ operated with a one-vote margin during the four years that made his reputation as what biographer Robert Caro called "master of the Senate." Johnson relied on maneuver and negotiation. In contrast, Reid uses arcane parliamentary tactics to transform the Senate into another House of Representatives, where the majority can dictate what amendments its members will have to vote on. A bigger Democratic majority next January in itself may not reverse this institutional decline.

Robert Novak

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

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