How Democrats Play the Obstruction Game

Harry Reid keeps filling up the "amendment tree," leaving Republicans with few options.

Senate Majority Leader Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) listens during an event on Capitol Hill on April 3, 2014 in Washington, DC. (National Journal)

If you've been paying attention to the Senate floor recently, you've likely heard a Republican senator complaining about the "amendment tree," another tool used by the Democratic majority to prevent Republicans from presenting their own proposals for a vote.

Lately, the tree seems to be bearing more than its share of Democratic fruit, Republicans complain.

"When the Senate Democratic leadership decides to bring a bill to the floor, far more often than not we are blocked from offering any amendments," Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said on the floor last week.

Essentially, the "tree" represents all the amendments that are included in a particular bill; up to 11 are accepted. Of late, the Democratic majority has taken to "filling the tree" on major pieces of legislation, leaving no room for Republican proposals.

Many of these Democratic proposals are filler, making infinitesimal changes to bills that often don't end up becoming law anyway. The bulk of them are second-degree amendments, which is to say, amendments of amendments. When one falls, the others topple like dominoes. But that's typically reserved for the last minute, leaving Republicans no time to replace them with their own.

These amendments typically make very small, and sometimes even conflicting, changes to the underlying bill. One of Reid's amendments filed on the unemployment-insurance extension bill, which is expected to pass the Senate on Monday, for example, changes the enactment date of the legislation to one day after the president signs the bill. Another changes it to two days after the bill is enacted, a third to three days, and on and on over the course of 11 different amendments, up to a six-day delay.

None of those amendments made it into the final legislation; some were dropped Wednesday, while others were withdrawn Thursday on a majority vote just before the Senate filed cloture on the bill, which means no new amendments will be considered.

Reid rebuffed several Republicans' calls for greater participation in the amendment process last week, arguing that their amendments are aimed not at influencing the underlying legislation, but at preventing it from passing.

"There are more than two-dozen amendments on this bill alone dealing with Obamacare, repealing it in different ways," Reid argued. "Several other amendments have been singled out that we have before the body to attack the administration's efforts to protect the environment. The protests of Republican senators to the contrary notwithstanding, these amendments show that the other side of the aisle is not serious about unemployment insurance benefits.... What are they trying to do? Kill extended unemployment benefits."

Senate Republicans tried Thursday to table (or, kill) one of Reid's amendments to make room for one of their own. But with Democrats in the majority, that move failed on a 46-50 vote. Speaking on the floor, Sen. David Vitter, R-La., called the repeated dismissal of Republican amendments "inconsistent with all of the history and traditions of the Senate."

This has become a pattern, much to Republicans' chagrin. "Over the past number of years, the majority has called up a bill and then immediately filed cloture as if we were filibustering, when we don't have any intention to filibuster. All we want is to be able to call up amendments," Hatch said last week. "But, in addition to filing cloture, the majority will fill the tree, making [it] impossible for anyone to call up an amendment. Frankly, this is not the way to run the Senate."

But Republicans recognize that they won't always be in the minority and the way Reid has controlled the Senate over the last six years could come back to haunt him. "I think it is a bad thing to do. However, the principle has been started and the precedent has been set," Hatch warned.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Orrin Hatch. He is a Republican senator from Utah.

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