Guy Benson

Last night, fifty-one Democrats changed the rules of the United States Senate by a simple majority vote.  This shocking development -- which Erika and Carol covered as it unfolded -- came at the behest of the upper chamber's Majority Leader, who was desperate to block a fairly common maneuver by the minority.  This is mind-numbingly arcane stuff, but stick with me as I attempt to explain what happened:  After agreeing to invoke cloture (ie, not filibuster) on a piece of legislation dealing with Chinese currency, Republicans put forward a "motion to suspend" after the cloture vote succeeded, but prior to a final vote on the bill.  If adopted, this motion would have allowed the GOP to put forth an amendment to the bill.  In this case, the amendment would have attached President Obama's unedited, unvarnished, pass-it-right-now jobs bill to the underlying legislation.  Due to the rules, it would have taken a 2/3 majority to adopt this motion; in other words, it wasn't gonna happen.  So why offer it at all?  Allahpundit explains: "Post-cloture amendments are a cheap and easy way for the minority party to force the majority to vote on proposals that might somehow embarrass them. The embarrassing proposal in this case was … Obama’s jobs bill."

The reason the GOP was even resorting to this silliness is because they were denied the ability to attach Obama's plan as a traditional, pre-cloture amendment because Harry Reid had once again "filled the tree" on the bill.  That term describes a procedural ploy in which the Senate Majority Leader crowds out and blocks all other amendments by essentially "filling" all the available slots with frivolous changes of his own, such as editing punctuation marks.   This is not an unprecedented tactic, but Reid has abused it during his reign, "filling the tree" more times than his six immediate predecessors combined.

Because the ordinary amendment process was shut down, the GOP saw the post-cloture "motion to suspend" privilege as a their only chance to compel Democrats to take a "tough" vote simply to proceed to considering Obama's jobs plan.  Reid, Schumer, and Durbin knew they did not have the votes to pass the president's plan, and apparently decided that any official record of rank-and-file Democrats voting to avoid a bill their own party's president is demanding be passed "right now" would be an embarrassment to the White House.  True.  It would officially confirm what we've known to be the case for days: That Democrats are blocking Obama's proposal, not Republicans.  In order to spare Obama this minor humiliation, Reid decided to change Senate rules on the fly.  When Republicans moved to suspend the rules and offer their amendment -- which they knew wouldn't succeed -- Reid blindsided them by objecting to the motion, and deeming it out of order.  Despite the Senate Parliamentarian's assertion that such a move would be unprecedented, fifty-one Democrats then voted to unilaterally change the Senate rules to bar post-cloture "motions to suspend." 

Having tossed years of Senate comity and precedent out the window in one fell swoop, Reid's caucus effectively prevented Republicans from forcing a vote on whether or not to vote on an amendment.  (I'll let you read that last sentence again, so it sinks in).  This tool had always been available to the Senate minority, but now it's history, thanks to Reid & Co.  One point of further clarification: Some people have mistakenly assumed this marked the sudden return of the controversial 2005 "nuclear option," which was discussed, then abandoned, by Republicans.  That would have used a very similar mechanism to eliminate the judicial filibuster.  In this case, post-cloture amendments  -- not filibusters of any sort -- were nuked. 

This all may seem rather insignificant and boring, but the precedent is anything but.  Harry Reid employed a "nuclear" procedural tactic to strip the minority of a long-standing, modest tool to exert a modicum of influence over the legislative process.  He did so to avoid the inconvenience of being forced to vote on whether or not to proceed to a vote on an amendment to another bill.  I understand that Reid was looking to avoid unhelpful headlines like, "Senate Democrats Kill Vote on Obama Jobs Plan."  That sort of coverage would have complicated Obama's stupid narrative of blaming Republicans for his stalled agenda.  But this bill has zero chance of becoming law anyway.  The House will never pass it, so all of this is about political posturing.  Harry Reid strong-armed his caucus into abandoning decades of Senate rules and precedent in order to win a fleeting, and ultimately meaningless, PR victory.  That's alarming.  As The Hill reports, "The surprise move stunned Republicans, who did not expect Reid to bring heavy artillery to what had been a humdrum knife fight over amendments to China currency legislation."

Republicans are fuming.  A "visibly shaken" McConnell called the episode a "bad mistake" in a furious (by Mitch McConnell standards) floor speech after Reid pulled his surprise coup:
 


Democrats have played the hardest of hardball to win a relatively insignificant point.  They probably assume this controversy is so "in-the-weeds" that most Americans won't understand or care what they've done.  They might be right.  But when Republicans flirted with using a nearly identical procedure to eliminate a different Senate minority tool during the Bush years, Democrats went ballistic, and succeeded in scaring the GOP off.  Will Republicans lift a finger to retaliate here, or will they just shake their heads in dismay and move on?  Parting thought: I wish McConnell would have dispensed with the "good friend" nonsense, even for a day, after Reid pulled this garbage.


UPDATE - Democratic aides are claiming that Reid and McConnell had reached an agreement on post-cloture amendments (aka, motions to suspend), and that McConnell breached it by insisting on multiple additional amendments.  My Republican sources say there was never an agreement on amendments (especially considering that the normal amendment process was completely gummed up by Reid).  Top GOP staffers say Reid may have signaled a willingness to allow the jobs bill motion to move forward, as long as McConnell dispatched other ones.  Republicans responded that the Majority Leader does not have the prerogative to approve or disapprove individual amendments the minority may offer, on principle.  Therefore, they moved forward with their planned motions, and Reid nuked all of them.


Guy Benson

Guy Benson is Townhall.com's Senior Political Editor. Follow him on Twitter @guypbenson.

Author Photo credit: Jensen Sutta Photography