Fight Over Rules Delays Spring Break for Democratic Senators

Frustrations over Senate rules are keeping senators in Washington just a little while longer, at least for now.

Senate Majorirty Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) speaks with reporters following the weekly policy luncheon for Senate Democrats April 8, 2014 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Elahe Izad and Sarah Mimms
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Elahe Izad Sarah Mimms
April 10, 2014, 1:12 p.m.

Ten­sions over changes in the Sen­ate rules late last year res­ul­ted in an ex­plos­ive con­front­a­tion between party lead­ers on the Sen­ate floor and a delayed va­ca­tion for Demo­crat­ic mem­bers on Thursday.

At is­sue are two of Pres­id­ent Obama’s ju­di­cial nom­in­a­tions and long-sim­mer­ing Re­pub­lic­an an­ger over Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id’s de­cision in Novem­ber to in­voke the so-called nuc­le­ar op­tion. Un­der the new rules, Demo­crats need just a simple ma­jor­ity of votes to ap­prove the nom­in­a­tions, but they still have to al­low for 30 hours of de­bate, ab­sent an agree­ment from the minor­ity.

But on Thursday, Re­pub­lic­ans re­fused to come to an agree­ment to move up the vote, lead­ing Re­id to call for a rare vote re­quir­ing all ab­sent sen­at­ors to ap­pear on the floor just after 3 p.m., as many mem­bers were pre­par­ing to leave for a two-week East­er re­cess. The mo­tion suc­ceeded with 55 mem­bers vot­ing in fa­vor, in­clud­ing Re­pub­lic­an Sens. Dean Heller of Nevada and Richard Shelby of Alabama.

Re­id was hope­ful that once the mem­bers were to­geth­er on the Sen­ate floor with the sounds of jet en­gines run­ning in the back of their minds, some kind of deal could be reached, but Re­pub­lic­ans ob­jec­ted to mov­ing for­ward with the vote.

“I’m so sorry,” Re­id said, apo­lo­giz­ing to his fel­low Demo­crats, the ma­jor­ity of whom had already left the Sen­ate floor. Demo­crats will have to vote Fri­day af­ter­noon to con­firm Michelle T. Fried­land to the 9th Dis­trict Cir­cuit Court of Ap­peals, Re­id said, though Re­pub­lic­ans who op­pose the nom­in­a­tion will be free to go home. “They don’t have to be here, we do,” Re­id lamen­ted.

Re­pub­lic­ans scoffed at Re­id’s re­quest to move up the nom­in­a­tion, not­ing that many GOP sen­at­ors op­pose Fried­land and de­serve a full 30 hours of de­bate to out­line their con­cerns. “There is con­tro­versy over this nom­in­ee,” Sen. Chuck Grass­ley, R-Iowa, de­claimed, ask­ing for the vote to be delayed un­til after the two-week East­er re­cess, a pro­pos­al that Re­id quickly re­jec­ted.

The 30 hours of de­bate is sched­uled to ex­pire between 4 and 5 p.m. Fri­day, for­cing mem­bers to stick around for an­oth­er day. It’s un­clear how many Demo­crat­ic mem­bers are still in Wash­ing­ton, and some Re­pub­lic­ans could be needed to com­plete the nom­in­a­tion on Fri­day.

Sen­ate Minor­ity Whip John Cornyn noted “there is some con­tro­versy as­so­ci­ated” with a nom­in­ee, and said that Re­id brought this situ­ation upon him­self when Demo­crats changed the Sen­ate rules around nom­in­ees. “Then when we’re try­ing to ap­ply the rules al­low­ing for 30 hours post-clo­ture [time], he some­how thinks that’s an un­reas­on­able po­s­i­tion,” Cornyn said. “So I think there’d be a lot more bi­par­tis­an co­oper­a­tion so every­body could be ac­com­mod­ated, but for the ex­treme po­s­i­tion taken on the nuc­le­ar op­tion.”

Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell ex­pressed out­rage at Re­id’s re­quest to ad­vance the vote early, es­sen­tially ask­ing Re­pub­lic­ans to give up what little power they now hold over Sen­ate pro­ceed­ings in the post-nuc­le­ar age. “Des­pite this heavy-handed be­ha­vi­or, [Re­id] ex­pects the minor­ity to ex­ped­ite con­sid­er­a­tion.”¦ We’re simply ex­er­cising our right un­der the rules of the Sen­ate,” Mc­Con­nell said.

Demo­crats ar­gued that the 30 hours of de­bate time (more than two weeks, really, giv­en the re­cess) would not be used by Re­pub­lic­ans any­way. “The real­ity is if they want 30 hours, then de­bate it, but that’s not what they’re go­ing to do,” said Sen. Mark Be­gich, D-Alaska. “They’re just go­ing to leave an empty floor. So the Amer­ic­an people ex­pect when you fili­buster, you ac­tu­ally come to the floor and ex­plain why you don’t like this [nom­in­ee].”

Be­gich said that he had planned on stick­ing around D.C. un­til Sat­urday any­way, so a Fri­day vote won’t be an is­sue for him. He pre­dicted that this scen­ario will play out again in the fu­ture. “It’s go­ing to keep hap­pen­ing be­cause this is what they like to do,” Be­gich said of Re­pub­lic­ans. “And it’s too bad be­cause it’s really de­struct­ive to mov­ing for­ward on oth­er is­sues.”

Re­id said on the floor that dur­ing Obama’s pres­id­ency, the Sen­ate spent too much time on de­bate, which ul­ti­mately has no ef­fect on the fi­nal vote. “We’ve wasted thou­sands of hours through the last five years,” Re­id com­plained.

Ul­ti­mately, Re­id did not re­lent to Re­pub­lic­an re­quests to take up the nom­in­a­tion after the re­cess. Al­though there is still time for the sen­at­ors to come to an agree­ment on de­bate time this even­ing, Demo­crats will very likely spend an­oth­er day in Wash­ing­ton be­fore they board their flights home. “Most people work on Fri­days,” Re­id said.

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