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Senate having trouble 'doing business in the modern era'

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Has partisanship made the Senate completely dysfunctional?

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Now, that tradition has evolved so that stand-up-and-talk filibusters are rarely required. But the threat to filibuster, made without fanfare or spectacle, is a constant.

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During Johnson's three terms as majority leader, from 1955 to 1961, there was only one time when a vote was called to break a filibuster. In the past two years, there have been 84.

Senate procedures now require that most controversial bills face two such "cloture" votes: one before they are taken up and another before they can be voted on.

It doesn't matter which party has the majority; if it doesn't have 60 senators, the body can't even hold a vote on legislation it wants to pass.

Last week, the unique conditions of a lame duck session made it a test case for the Senate's problems. Reid could not avail himself of LBJ-style maneuvers, using threats or promises of public-works projects to bring Republicans along.

"There's not a member up here that would agree to these bullying tactics in this day and age," Reid spokesman Jim Manley said. "For those harkening back to the golden years, they're completely misreading the current situation."

Today, Manley said, it takes 60 votes to pass anything, and Reid didn't have them.

"Sen. Reid has kept his caucus united through thick and thin," Manley said. "Unfortunately, so has [Senate Minority Leader Mitch] McConnell."

This was in plain view Thursday afternoon, when the Senate voted on whether to advance the massive defense bill that would repeal "don't ask, don't tell" as well as provide pay raises for troops. Senate Democratic leaders had been negotiating with Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and other moderate Republicans who indicated they would support the bill but wanted four days of debate and the ability to offer 10 amendments.

Republicans, led by McConnell (R-Ky.), also wanted to consider legislation to extend Bush-era tax cuts before any other bills.

The bipartisan talks collapsed when Reid ordered a roll-call vote. Collins interrupted, angrily waving her arms about the process. And in the end, the 60 votes required to prevent a filibuster and advance the bill were not there.

"You're not going to get our cooperation when you take these bills and you bring them up with no real certainty as to how we can participate in the debate and how many amendments we can offer," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said.

Senators always have expected time to debate issues. In a lame-duck session, that luxury does not exist.

"The Senate takes time," said David Hoppe, who worked as chief of staff for former Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.). "Part of the reason the pressure cooker is so hot here is there are very few chances for people to let off steam. If you let people go down there and offer amendments and discuss these things, that will help relieve a lot of the pressure."

Added Meehan: "Senators are actually individual nation-state elected officials, so they very much want to at least procedurally guarantee that they have those rights."

An exasperated Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who said she would have voted to repeal "don't ask, don't tell" had there been more time to debate the measure, blamed the breakdown on Reid.

"He had a path forward, and he chose not to do it," she told reporters as she came off the Senate floor. "He shut it down."

ruckerp@washpost.com fahrenthold@washpost.com


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