To avoid a vote on President Obama's jobs bill Thursday night, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid invoked a procedural motion that could change the way the Senate operates for years to come. It may not sound sexy, but the gist of last night's high-parliamentary drama was this: The majority party in the Senate now may have a new power to cut off motions to suspend the rules.
For several days, Senate Republican leaders have pushed for a vote on the American Jobs Act. Their thinking in forcing a vote is simple, and quite political: They know Democrats have not yet whipped together enough votes for it to pass, so the exercise is more about embarrassing the Democratic majority than anything else.
To do this, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) moved to add two Republican amendments to a bipartisan bill intended to punish China for undervaluing its currency. One amendment was a version of the president's jobs plan. And in order to push the amendment through, McConnell intended to file a motion to suspend the rules, which would require 67 votes and surely fail, giving Republicans the ability to say that Obama's jobs bill had failed. The Senate parliamentarian ruled that McConnell's motion was in order, and that the body could proceed with a vote on the amendments.
So far, so simple--at least by the standards by which the Senate does business. But Reid, who plans to put a version of the jobs bill to a vote in the coming weeks, blocked the Republican effort by resorting to what has long-been called the "nuclear option": He got a procedural ruling from the parliamentarian that changes the minority's ability to introduce amendments when a filibuster is defeated. Reid called for a motion to simply overrule the parliamentarian's call permitting the McConnell amendment to go forward and he succeeded. Under the Reid rule change, a simple majority of 51 votes can effectively block the amended version of the AJA bill that McConnell was trying to marshal through the chamber.
That's a big, and potentially game-changing, shift in Senate procedure. Normally, the Senate can agree to waive the rules with a two-thirds vote once the majority overcomes a filibuster and members have 30 hours to introduce and debate the amendments. This is part of what sets the Senate apart from the House as the federal government's most deliberative body.
In one move, Reid abandoned years of precedent in the Senate and essentially cut off one of the minority party's most powerful weapons. It's a high-risk tactic, though, since Reid may have set the chamber on a course that could undermine his own party if Republicans one day become the majority in the Senate. A future Republican majority leader could easily point to Reid's gambit and deny Democrats the same ability to introduce their own amendments.
Republicans, to say the least, were furious.
"We are fundamentally turning the Senate into the House," McConnell said on the Senate floor. "The minority's out of business."
Reid said that the move was just a narrow effort to ensure the Chinese currency bill proceeds.
"I know there is some hurt feelings here, perhaps on both sides, because this hasn't been easy for me either," Reid said. "I'm willing to legislate. I'll take a lot of hard votes in my career and I would be happy to vote on these. But there has to be an end to this."
Confused? The Senate rulebook is full of procedural motions that allow members to block and advance bills that hit the floor. The path to a bill's passage is riddled with layers upon layers of arcane guidelines that provide members a cornucopia of methods to flex their muscles.
In the short term at least, Reid's effort succeeded. The Senate will vote on the Chinese currency bill next Tuesday.