A power grab Democrats should avoid
When the 112th Congress convenes Wednesday, some of us will be thinking back to a vote that occurred 16 years earlier to the day. Just two months after securing a congressional majority for the first time in 40 years, Republicans strode into the Senate chamber on Jan. 5, 1995, to cast the first vote of the 104th Congress - a vote to limit their own power.
Sen. Tom Harkin had proposed changing Senate rules so that it would take only 51 votes to shut down debate instead of the traditional 60. Though it was clearly in the Republican majority's short-term interest to support the measure, every one of us voted against it, as did then-Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. and senior members of the Democratic leadership in the Senate, including the majority leader and the president pro tempore.
What every Republican senator, and many Democratic senators, realized at the time was that any attempt by a sitting majority to grasp at power would come back to haunt us. Even worse, any rule change aimed at making it easier for one party to force legislation through the Senate with only a slim partisan majority would undermine the Senate's unique role as a moderating influence and put a permanent end to bipartisanship.
All of this is newly relevant because some on the left are agitating once again for partisan rule changes aimed at empowering the majority at the expense of the minority. They have peddled the well-worn myth that changes are needed as a way of overcoming partisanship on the part of Republicans. Their evidence: a historically high number of so-called cloture petitions by the Democratic majority to cut off debate. Republicans forced these petitions, Democrats say, by blocking or slow-walking bills.
What these critics routinely fail to mention (and too many reporters fail to report) is the precipitating action: the Democratic majority's repeated use of a once-rare procedural gimmick that has kept Republicans from amending bills that are brought to the floor. This practice, known as "filling the amendment tree," leads to a question that answers itself: Why would Republicans vote for action on a bill that, we've been promised, we'll be blocked from contributing to in any way? If the majority wants more cooperation, it could start by allowing differing views to be heard.
Over the past four years, Democrats have used such gimmicks to pursue their most prized legislative goals while attempting to minimize the number of uncomfortable votes they've had to take. My Democratic counterpart in the Senate, Harry Reid, has played quarterback, setting records for the number of times he has blocked Republicans from having any input on bills, cut off our right to debate and bypassed the committee process in order to write bills behind closed doors.
This partisan approach is the main reason Republicans have stuck together over the past few years. In the best traditions of the Senate, we have insisted that the views of those we represent not be ignored. The November election suggested that voters appreciated our stand against partisanship. Yet rather than change their ways in the face of that election, Democrats are now looking for a way to essentially nullify its results.
All of this should be familiar to anyone who remembers the debate on the health-care bill. One can't help but wonder, though, whether those now pushing for partisan changes have fully thought through what damage they could do.
A change in the rules by a bare majority aimed at benefiting Democrats today could just as easily be used to benefit Republicans tomorrow. Do Democrats really want to create a situation where, two or four or six years from now, they are suddenly powerless to prevent Republicans from overturning legislation they themselves worked so hard to enact?
And have those pushing for these changes forgotten how their party used the rules of the Senate to block legislation when Republicans were in the majority? Given the ease with which majorities can shift these days, Democrats might want to be careful what they wish for.
For two years, Democrats in Congress have hoped their large majorities would make it easy for them to pass extremely partisan legislation. Now that they've lost an election, they've decided to change the rules rather than change their behavior. They should resist the impulse. Democrats should reflect on what they have done to alienate voters, not double down on the approach that got them here. They should recall the lesson of Jan. 5, 1995, when Republicans responded to their own new majority by recognizing that it wasn't permanent.
The writer is the Senate Republican leader.