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Making time fly (backwards) in the Senate

- March 20, 2013

It seems the Senate has resolved its impasse over the CR, a disagreement that originally arose last week over which senators would be afforded votes on their proposed amendments.

The majority leader overcame last night’s speed bump by sticking to his guns (so to say): Reid began to run out the 30-hour post-cloture clock and refused to give in to even the most persistent senators seeking to amend the Senate CR.  Without an agreement on amendments, objecting senators finally gave  up their fight.  The Senate went home tonight after agreeing to cast three votes late tomorrow morning:  A defense-related amendment by Sen. Toomey, the Mikulski-Shelby amendment to the House CR, and a final cloture vote on the CR.  If cloture is invoked, the agreement precludes any post-cloture amendments to the CR.  (The Senate then potentially faces another 30 hours of post-cloture debate before a final passage vote on the CR itself.)

What’s interesting here?   Some thoughts:

First, the political science program at NSF appears to have dodged Sen. Coburn’s effort to zero out its funding (at least on the CR).   His GOP colleagues’ obstruction of a bipartisan plan on amendments led the majority party to further restrict amendment rights.  This is a perfect example of what Steve Smith has called the Senate’s obstruct and restrict syndrome:

Leaders are expected to fully exploit the rules in the interests of their parties. The minority is quick to obstruct and the majority is quick to restrict. Senators of both parties are frustrated by what has become of their institution.

Senators profess an interest in getting back to “regular order,” but the chamber has a long way to go.  In the meantime, that Senate stickiness has helped to preserve federal support for political science.

Second, as Niels Lesniewski nicely reminds us this evening, the filibuster deal this winter included an informal handshake intended to speed up post-cloture debate: If senators refused to curtail post-cloture hours, leaders would force live quorum calls to compel senators to the floor.  In this case (and in many others), it’s not clear that forcing senators to the floor to debate would increase pressure on them to consent to winding down the  clock.  Given the spotlight, Senators Jerry Moran and Kelly Ayotte (who both refused to consent to Reid’s requests) might have happily continued to make a public case (and to pester the majority leader) to allow votes on their amendments.  And if the onus to produce a quorum fell on the majority, Reid would be inconveniencing his own rank and file.   So long as Senate rules require unanimity or sixty votes to act, partial reforms will likely have limited effect.

Finally, driving home the power of unanimous consent in the Senate, tonight’s agreement includes a nice sleight of hand:

If cloture on the underlying bill is invoked, the clock (30 hours) will begin counting as if cloture had been invoked at 1am on Wednesday, March 20.

I suppose if the Senate can conduct Morning Hour debate at 2 pm, they can also set their clocks back eleven hours. The Senate might struggle to legislate, but it sure knows how to make time fly (albeit, backwards).