Democrats are largely happy with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's election-year strategy of limiting the number of amendment votes they face, even though it means some of their own ideas haven't gotten a chance.
In an effort to keep vulnerable Democrats from having to cast votes on everything from gun control to Obamacare this year, Reid has maintained tight control over legislation, preventing amendments to bills once they reach the floor.
That’s kept Republicans from proposing amendments that would put Democrats in a tight spot. But it’s also kept many Democratic ideas from seeing the light of day either.
Some targeted Democrats are heading into the midterms having received a vote on just one of their sponsored amendments since they were first elected to the Senate, or re-elected, almost six years ago. Freshman Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska has never received a floor vote on an amendment he authored.
But most Democrats don't seem to mind. Instead, most pin the responsibility for gridlock squarely on Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Senate Republicans.
“It's not like we're fighting Senator Reid,” Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said. “He is trying to make the best of a very difficult situation.”
A few Democrats are angry with Reid for blocking amendments, most notably Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a former governor who represents a red state and is unaccustomed to having his hands tied. But the vast majority of Senate Democrats back their 74-year-old leader and have given him carte blanche to employ parliamentary tactics to block amendments.
Reid typically blocks amendments through a procedure referred to as “filling the tree.” Only the majority leader can execute the move, which prevents senators from filing amendments against a bill once it has been introduced on the floor for debate. Reid sometimes fills the tree as way to manage the amendment process and control the negotiations with McConnell and his conference over which GOP amendments will be granted floor votes.
This week, Reid once again blocked amendments from being filed against a bill, the Bipartisan Sportsmen's Act, to protect his vulnerable, six-seat majority from the possibility of tough votes.
Republicans, who wanted to amend the legislation to loosen gun control restrictions, responded by blocking further debate on the otherwise noncontroversial measure, seriously jeopardizing its prospects.
The Bipartisan Sportsmen's Act, designed to reduce federal regulations on hunters and outdoor enthusiasts, was supposed to provide a political boost to Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina, the bill's lead Democratic sponsor and a freshman currently facing a tough re-election battle.
Democrats are frustrated, but they're pointing fingers at McConnell. They accuse the minority leader of abusing the amendment process and trying to score political points by forcing Democrats to vote on proposals that are completely unrelated to the policy of the legislation under consideration.
“There's plenty of frustration,” said Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee chairman. “I don't hear a whole lot of it directed at Sen. Reid.”
McConnell's parliamentary tactic of choice is the filibuster.
He typically blocks debate on legislation as a means to force Reid to allow votes on GOP amendments, if not to kill the legislation entirely. With 55 members in his caucus, Reid is five votes short of being able to break a filibuster. Rather than acceding to Republican demands to allow votes on amendments that could be politically problematic for some Democrats who are up for re-election, Reid has increasingly opted to scrap consideration of bills altogether.
Democrats are perplexed. Some, mainly the centrists and those elected to the Senate in the past few years, have been meeting in small groups to discuss ways to get the legislative process moving again. These days, the Senate does little more than confirm President Obama's nominees, which itself has only been possible because the majority last November pushed through a controversial rules change that limited the minority party's ability to filibuster executive branch appointments.
Even the typically bipartisan defense authorization bill could get shelved because of haggling over amendments.
But Democratic sources caution not to misread their side’s frustration. Reid has served as the top Senate Democrat for nearly a decade, and he’s maintained power in part because he has his finger on the pulse of his caucus, is a good listener and doesn’t dictate. Democrats trust Reid and give him the latitude to make decisions.
Sen. Angus King of Maine, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, has been meeting with members on both sides of the aisle to try and negotiate an end to the amendment logjam. He is considering switching sides and caucusing with the Republicans next year, if the GOP wins the Senate majority. Still, King confirmed Democratic goodwill toward Reid and declined to chastise the majority leader for the impasse.
“I don’t think they blame Senator Reid,” King said of his Democratic colleagues. “Like everything, there are two sides to every story.”