Democrats have one overriding objective this Congress: to create jobs and get our economy back on track. But our Republican colleagues are so dead set on preventing Democrats from passing job-creating legislation that they have been willing to abuse the rules of the Senate to grind the chamber to a halt, making it virtually impossible to pass even bills that have broad, bipartisan support.
The Senate rule change we made last week has been inaccurately described, including by Marc A. Thiessen on this page, as a resort to the “nuclear option.” But rather than a nuclear option that would have forever altered the character of the Senate by limiting the minority’s ability to challenge legislation, the change we made Thursday was a return to order.
On Thursday morning, we seemed to be on the brink of passing a bill to curb unfair currency manipulation by the Chinese government, a practice that has cost millions of American manufacturing jobs over the past two decades. The bill — which is supported by business and labor interests — had garnered a bipartisan supermajority not just once but twice. With passage virtually assured, the minority reached for the only tool left to try and derail the bill, confronting us with a potentially unlimited number of votes on completely unrelated amendments. Voting on these amendments would require suspending the Senate’s rules — an obscure procedure that hadn’t been used frequently until this Congress and hasn’t been used successfully since 1941.
None of the amendments Republicans demanded were about policy. Each was an attempt to score political points or provide fodder for campaign ads. None was related to the legislation on the floor, which would support 1.6 million American jobs. None would put a single American back to work. Yet still we tried to reach a compromise with our Republican colleagues.
We offered votes on four amendments, and they wanted five. We offered five votes, and they wanted six. Finally, we offered votes on seven amendments, including a vote on an outdated version of President Obama’s American Jobs Act, with which Republicans were seeking to score political points. Still, Republicans refused. They came back with a demand for nine votes that required suspending the Senate’s rules. The same logic that allows for nine unstoppable motions to suspend the rules could lead to consideration of 99 such motions.
The Senate’s rules honor the rights of the minority party, and the right of every individual senator, to influence and shape the debate. That right of an individual senator to stand up and speak until the body votes to stop that debate, is balanced by a tradition of cooperation and conciliation. The Senate moves by consent.
But in recent years, the minority party has abused its right to debate and delay, and has upset the balance between minority rights and cooperation on which a productive Senate depends.
At the beginning of this Congress, many of my Democratic colleagues wished to change the rules of the Senate to limit the minority party’s ability to kill important, job-creating legislation with arcane parliamentary maneuvers and needless delay. I opposed this rule change, believing we needed to preserve the right of the minority to offer amendments.
Rather than limiting those rights, we came to an understanding with Republicans, who agreed to respect the Senate’s tradition of conciliation in the interest of getting things done. They agreed to stop forcing procedural votes for the sake of slowing down legislation, and we agreed to preserve the minority party’s right to block bills when necessary.
Since then, Republicans have failed to abide by that agreement. Rather than working with Democrats to pass job-creating legislation, they have used procedural maneuvers to kill several common-sense bills — including a noncontroversial small-business loan program — that have previously passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. They have twice nearly shut down the government and forced our nation to the brink of default for the first time in its history.
This obstruction has real consequences. The types of jobs bills that used to pass unanimously and are now being blocked have affected thousands of American jobs.
The Republicans used a new stall tactic last week, one that is used infrequently in the history of the Senate. It was an attempt to make cloture meaningless — to say that the road to passage must include a vote-a-rama of unrelated, purely political votes.
This is the practice we voted to change. The precedent we set merely returns the Senate to the regular order and only affects the ability of the minority to obstruct and delay after more than 60 senators have voted to end discussion.
Now, 60 votes to end debate will mean debate actually ends, as the rules of the Senate intended. We restored the balance between individual rights and comity in the rules of the Senate. But this change goes only so far. For the good of our economy and our country, I hope Republicans will work with us to restore that balance in our larger political debate in the interest of finding practical, bipartisan solutions to put Americans back to work.
The writer, a Democrat from Nevada, is the Senate majority leader.