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Political Maneuvers Delay Bill After Bill in Senate

During debate on a climate change bill this month, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, left, required that the 492-page bill be read aloud. He called the move payback for the failure of Majority Leader Harry M. Reid, right, to act on President Bush's judicial nominees.
During debate on a climate change bill this month, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, left, required that the 492-page bill be read aloud. He called the move payback for the failure of Majority Leader Harry M. Reid, right, to act on President Bush's judicial nominees. (Alex Wong - Getty Images)

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Senators in both parties say the logjam is the worst they've seen, largely due to copious use of the filibuster. Since January 2007, motions to end debate -- cloture motions -- have been filed 119 times. The previous record for any two-year session was 82.

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) has used a procedural tactic to prohibit GOP amendments 13 times since January 2007, more than any Senate leader since 1985.

Republicans point to those statistics and accuse Reid of using cloture to deny them the ability to amend legislation often chosen for its political message. That is why, they say, Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) has slowed the housing bill with his renewable-energy amendment. The housing bill is one of the few measures moving through the Senate that has a chance to become law.

"Substantive bills have simply been abandoned," said Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.). "Therefore, when a vehicle does appear that, like the housing bill, has some consensus behind it, people throw baggage on that immediately derails it."

Democrats say that Republicans are using the filibuster to block legislation and that their demand for amendments is an effort to turn every bill, no matter the subject, into a debate over GOP issues, such as the estate tax or offshore drilling.

"I think it's really unfair to say no one's compromising," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), noting that Republicans have blocked even bipartisan measures. "And they're hurting themselves politically. They've been doing this for a year now. As they keep doing it more and more, the number of voters who say they prefer Democrats to Republicans keeps going up."

The low point in Senate relations may have come during debate on a climate-change bill sponsored by Sens. John W. Warner (R-Va.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.). Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) forced the entire 492-page bill to be read aloud, an exercise that took nearly nine hours. McConnell said the move was payback for Reid's failure to act on President Bush's judicial nominees. Frustrated, Reid moved to end debate and bring the bill to the floor. The vote failed, killing the bill.

Then there's the housing package, a bipartisan construct assembled by Democrats in consultation with Republicans in both chambers. The measure includes some of the Bush administration's top priorities on housing, including provisions to modernize the Federal Housing Administration and create a stronger regulator for mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Democrats added a program to give hundreds of thousands of distressed borrowers the opportunity to avoid foreclosure by trading exotic mortgages with rapidly rising monthly payments for more affordable government-backed loans. Even that program was rewritten to address concerns of the White House and the top Republican on the Senate Banking Committee, Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama.

The measure had passed the House and appeared early this week to be sailing toward final passage in the Senate. On Tuesday, it cleared a cloture vote 83 to 9.

But then Ensign demanded an amendment to add the renewable-energy credits, noting that the housing bill had begun life as H.R. 3221, the Renewable Energy and Energy Conservation Tax Act of 2007. The Senate grabbed H.R. 3221 in April, wiped out the energy provisions, replaced them with housing provisions and changed the bill's title to the Foreclosure Prevention Act of 2008.

At that time, Ensign and his Democratic co-sponsor, Sen. Maria Cantwell (Wash.), urged their colleagues to keep the energy credits, and the Senate voted to restore them, 88 to 8. But the House later rewrote the housing bill and wiped them out again. Now Ensign is threatening to use every parliamentary trick at his disposal to restore them, although the amendment would ruin efforts to finalize the housing bill.

Ensign said he just wants to make sure the energy credits are extended, a goal supported by Democrats and Republicans alike. "I don't have any trouble being an obstructionist when you're trying to do something good for the country," he said.

But congressional scholar Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution said Ensign's demand "really points to a breakdown." The housing bill, Mann said, "is as good a faith effort by the majority as you can point to in this Congress."

The Senate is expected to pass the housing bill soon after it returns July 7. But with more than 8,000 homes going into foreclosure every day, Jerry Howard, chief executive of the National Association of Homebuilders, said, a two-week delay could prove costly.

"All I see is one senator blocking what could have been a law enacted before the July 4 recess," Howard said. "It doesn't make any sense."

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