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Decline of the Senate

By Robert D. Novak
Thursday, June 12, 2008

Sen. Arlen Specter, age 78, was feeling miserable Monday following chemotherapy the previous Friday. But believing the best antidote was hard work, Specter took the Senate floor with a speech that contrasted sharply from the partisan oratory now customary in the chamber.

Specter, a Republican centrist, has never been much of a partisan, but during five terms he has become a protector of the Senate's faded reputation as the "world's greatest deliberative body." On Monday, Specter deplored Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's use of a parliamentary device called "filling the tree" to prevent the Republican minority from offering amendments to a bill.

As Specter spoke, the Senate chamber, as is typical, was empty, except for freshman Democrat Ben Cardin, there as presiding officer. Specter departed from customary Senate self-congratulation: "The American people live under the illusion that we have a United States Senate. The facts show that the Senate is realistically dysfunctional. It is on life support, perhaps even moribund. The only facet of Senate bipartisanship is the conspiracy of successive Republican and Democratic leaders to employ this procedural device known as filling the tree. It is known that way to insiders, and it is incomprehensible to outsiders."

The device was used last week when Reid called up the bill responding to global warming, producing the state of futility that has haunted his year and a half as majority leader. Characteristically, Reid neither found the support needed to pass the bill nor attempted a compromise with opponents.

Debating an energy tax as gasoline prices hit $4 a gallon defied political logic. But Sen. Barbara Boxer, chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, insisted. Reid bowed to her.

To prevent his Democratic colleagues from having to face difficult votes, Reid "filled the tree" with interlocking amendments staving off all other proposed changes. The procedure has been used by majority leaders of both parties since 1985, but it's never been invoked as often as it has by Reid. This marked the 12th time he has resorted to the device.

What followed illustrates the decline of the Senate under Reid.

The Senate fell far short of the 60 votes needed to close debate on the bill. Though Reid blamed Republican intransigence, 10 Democratic senators -- including five-term liberal stalwart Carl Levin of Michigan -- had written Reid last Friday telling him they could not "support final passage of the bill" because of the economic impact it would have on their states. Reid set aside climate change legislation and moved to a bill that would impose an excess-profits tax on oil companies. He next asked senators to close off debate Tuesday, an effort that predictably fell short of the needed 60 votes.

Even for the feckless Senate, last week was extraordinary. When Republicans contended that Reid broke his pledge to confirm three of President Bush's appeals court nominees by Memorial Day, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell retaliated by requiring the entire climate-change bill to be read into the record (consuming more than 10 hours). A half-century ago, when I covered the Senate under Lyndon B. Johnson, such an event would have been headline news. Last week, it was barely noticed.

An unusual result of the current parliamentary situation is that the climate-change bill remains the pending business of the Senate because of Republican refusal to let Reid dispose of it. The GOP strategy is to keep the issue at hand because of its political toxicity. Specter, trying to be an old-fashioned legislator, really wants to detoxify the bill but cannot because of the no-amendment rule. On Tuesday, he asked for hearings on his 16-month-old proposal to prohibit the majority leader from filling the tree.

Reid's conduct is defended with the argument that he is hampered by a one-vote majority and will be less restricted once this year's elections add to the number of Democrats on hand. But LBJ operated with a one-vote margin during the four years that made his reputation as, in biographer Robert Caro's words, "master of the Senate." Johnson relied on maneuver and negotiation.

In contrast, Reid uses arcane parliamentary tactics to transform the Senate into another House of Representatives, where the majority can dictate what amendments its members have to vote on. A bigger Democratic majority next January in itself may not reverse this institutional decline.

© 2008 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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