Meet the Master of Senate Gridlock (Hint: It’s Not Ted Cruz)

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 30: Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) joins other Republican members of Congress while they hold a press conference on the Vitter Amendment as the U.S. legislative body remains gridlocked over legislation to continue funding the federal government September 30, 2013 in Washington, DC. Senate Majority leader Harry Reid has said the Senate would not vote on any legislation passed by the House to continue funding the federal government unless the legislation was free of Republican added amendments. Also pictured is Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) (R). 
National Journal
Fawn Johnson
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Fawn Johnson
Nov. 13, 2013, 5 p.m.

Sen. Dav­id Vit­ter, R-La., is not as flashy as Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, but he is ar­gu­ably more ef­fect­ive at get­ting his way in the Sen­ate and need­ling Demo­crats. He asks for what he wants, and if he doesn’t get it, he holds things up, plain and simple. The tac­tic could stretch out the Sen­ate’s le­gis­lat­ive agenda and ef­fect­ively keep Demo­crats from ad­dress­ing is­sues that they want votes on, like, say, a min­im­um-wage in­crease.

Vit­ter’s ac­tions dif­fer from those of Cruz, whose highly pub­li­cized 21-hour talk­a­thon over Pres­id­ent Obama’s health care law gave grass­roots act­iv­ists a hero to rally around, but didn’t ac­tu­ally stall the Sen­ate’s de­lib­er­a­tions. Vit­ter, by con­trast, is a mas­ter at stick­ing a pen­cil in the churn­ing gears of gov­ern­ment to make his point.

This week, Vit­ter is hold­ing up a non­con­tro­ver­sial bill to tight­en reg­u­la­tions on com­poun­ded drugs be­cause he wants a vote on his pro­pos­al to re­quire con­gres­sion­al of­fices to dis­close which of their staffers are al­lowed to keep their fed­er­al health be­ne­fits. He won’t get that vote, and in protest he could force the Sen­ate to stretch out the floor de­bate un­til Sunday. He may ac­qui­esce be­fore then, but it will only be be­cause he plans to turn right around and of­fer the same amend­ment on the must-pass de­fense-au­thor­iz­a­tion pro­pos­al next week, ac­cord­ing to con­gres­sion­al aides.

While Cruz is fant­ast­ic at the “out­side game” of ral­ly­ing tea-party act­iv­ists, Vit­ter ef­fect­ively plays the “in­side game” ma­nip­u­lat­ing the Sen­ate, Re­pub­lic­an ob­serv­ers say. He is more will­ing than oth­ers in the GOP caucus to sty­mie Demo­crats’ plans for floor ac­tion. The strategy can be an as­set for Re­pub­lic­ans gen­er­ally, even if they don’t care about Vit­ter’s par­tic­u­lar cause, be­cause it puts pres­sure on Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id, D-Nev., to al­low more votes, peri­od. If Re­id con­cedes on a trouble­some amend­ment, the GOP wins an at­tack ad. If Re­id re­fuses, the GOP can at­tack him. It’s win-win.

“There needs to be an ef­fect­ive pro­ced­ur­al game for con­ser­vat­ives who un­der­stand the rules and force the votes that Re­id ob­vi­ously doesn’t want to have,” said Dan Holler, a spokes­man for Her­it­age Ac­tion, the polit­ic­al wing of the con­ser­vat­ive Her­it­age Found­a­tion. “Vit­ter is ex­actly right in try­ing to bring that pres­sure.”

The cur­rent bee in Vit­ter’s bon­net is the treat­ment of con­gres­sion­al staffers, mem­bers of Con­gress, and Cab­in­et of­fi­cials un­der Obama’s health care law. The Af­ford­able Care Act re­quires all con­gres­sion­al staff and mem­bers to aban­don their fed­er­al health plans and pur­chase in­sur­ance on the ex­changes, which have proven highly prob­lem­at­ic since the Oct. 1 rol­lout. Vit­ter gummed up a re­l­at­ively mild en­ergy-ef­fi­ciency bill in Septem­ber by in­sist­ing on an amend­ment that would bar those em­ploy­ees from get­ting the same em­ploy­er-provided sub­sidies they have now. Re­id wound up yank­ing the bill from the floor be­cause of the dis­pute.

Vit­ter now has turned to what he calls “ex­emp­ted” staff. He wants to know the con­gres­sion­al staffers who, by a quirk of the reg­u­la­tions, can re­main on their cur­rent fed­er­al in­sur­ance plans. ACA rules say that only “of­fi­cial” con­gres­sion­al staffers are re­quired to get their in­sur­ance on the health ex­changes. That word­ing cre­ates a loop­hole: If a mem­ber of Con­gress des­ig­nates a staffer “un­of­fi­cial,” that per­son can keep his or her fed­er­al plan. Vit­ter wants those des­ig­na­tions to be made pub­lic.

Re­id isn’t go­ing to al­low a vote on that amend­ment either, which means that Vit­ter isn’t go­ing to al­low the drug-com­pound­ing bill to be passed in a single day, as most Demo­crats (and many Re­pub­lic­ans) would prefer. He’s po­lite about it — he is a South­ern­er, after all — but he isn’t afraid to use the rights giv­en to all sen­at­ors to in­sist on re­forms that he thinks are im­port­ant, even if it up­sets a le­gis­lat­ive timetable that someone else has set.

Fel­low Re­pub­lic­ans don’t al­ways agree with Vit­ter’s pet pro­jects, but they de­fend his right to de­fend them. “That’s his right,” said Sen. Or­rin Hatch, R-Utah. “Wheth­er it’s a wise thing or not, that’s a dif­fer­ent story.”

Re­id has told Vit­ter he can have a vote on his amend­ment if he agrees nev­er to bring it up again. Vit­ter thinks that’s an un­fair con­di­tion, par­tic­u­larly if the amend­ment passes and then gets stripped out later. That wouldn’t be a prob­lem on the drug-com­pound­ing bill, which has already passed the House, but it could hap­pen dur­ing the con­fer­ence com­mit­tee on the de­fense au­thor­iz­a­tion bill. “That’s a fool’s agree­ment,” Vit­ter said on the Sen­ate floor. “I need to be able to pro­tect my rights.”

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