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
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Sarah Mimms
April 7, 2014, 1 a.m.

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.