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.”