It’s no secret that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., don’t like one another. They battle regularly over legislation, and their floor fights over arcane but important rules have become must-see entertainment for senatorial insiders.
The two leaders have not had a one-on-one sit-down to discuss legislation (or anything else) since late last year, according to aides in both parties. Nowadays, all business is conducted on the phone or in brief discussions on the Senate floor. Part of that feud is political – Democrats targeted McConnell in 2008, Republicans targeted Reid in 2010, Democrats are again targeting McConnell in 2014, even as Republicans gear up to target Reid in 2016.
The other, more fundamental cause of the breakdown is a disagreement about those arcane rules and procedures – each man believes the other has irreparably abused them.
The battle came to a head in mid-November, when Reid led a party-line vote that stripped Republicans of their ability to filibuster President Barack Obama’s nominees to the executive and judicial branches.
With Republicans now considered an even-money (or slightly better) shot to reclaim the majority in November, one of the most intriguing questions politicos have begun to ask is this: What – if anything – would change in the Senate if McConnell became majority leader at the start of the 114th Congress?
In early January, McConnell delivered a lengthy floor speech that outlined three key areas in which he would try to make the Senate a more robust debating arena.
Here’s a look at each of McConnell’s ideas.
1. “A vigorous committee process.” All sides agree that the glory years of powerful committee chairmen (from the likes of John Stennis to Ted Kennedy to Ted Stevens) have faded. For every pact negotiated by Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray, D-Wash. – she nailed a two-year fiscal deal with Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. – there are a bunch more that are left waiting on the sidelines for leadership to decide when and how a bill should be considered. (See Max Baucus’s decision to quit as Finance Committee chair to become ambassador to China after hitting a dead end on tax reform and a smaller bill to extend expired tax credits.)
McConnell argues that if committees can be empowered again, it will lead to more bipartisan work that easily passes the full Senate in a broad bipartisan vote.
Democrats counter that McConnell has done more to destroy the bipartisan work of committees than anyone, beginning with pulling Republicans on the Finance Committee away from Baucus in 2009 on the health-care bill. Just last summer, McConnell, a veteran of the Appropriations Committee, torpedoed that panel’s bipartisan work on funding for highway programs.
2. “A robust amendment process.” In the first years with Reid as majority leader, the Senate voted early and often, and Reid was generous: Republicans got to vote on 379 of their amendments (out of less than 550 total amendment votes from 2007 through 2009).
Then, once Republicans took over the House in 2011, Reid’s Senate turned into a grave for legislative activity.
Based on data from his office, Reid allowed about half as many total amendments from 2011 to 2013 as he did in his first three years in charge, with Republicans getting about half the amendment votes they received in Reid’s early years.
McConnell believes this is part of a “show vote” strategy in which bills are conceived by Democratic leaders and put onto the floor to set up campaign messages for endangered incumbents.
“The Senate seems more like a campaign studio than a serious legislative body,” he said in January.
When legislation has gone through extensive committee consideration and had several weeks on the full Senate floor – the farm bill and immigration bill are examples – they’ve received large bipartisan votes.
Democrats argue that Senate Republicans have crafted numerous “poison pill” amendments over the years and often won’t promise to vote for a bill even if their amendment passes, leaving the final result a filibustered bill.
3. “A decent week’s work.” On this, there’s bipartisan agreement. Today’s senator arrives in Washington at 5 p.m. on Monday and leaves by 3 p.m. on Thursday, and while here, he/she spends more time raising money than on the Senate floor.
Don’t even think about votes during the dinner hour, because of what’s called the “Charlie Palmer Rule”: Go to the Capitol Hill steakhouse and you'll find a handful of senators hosting fundraisers every weeknight.
“Some of us have been around long enough to remember when Thursday night was the main event,” McConnell recalled.
True, that was the night when a committee chairman and the majority leader would keep the floor going and going, allow rank-and-file senators to offer amendment requests, whittle those down and, eventually, as the clock approached midnight, allow a vote on final passage.
“If Republicans are in the majority next year, we'll use the clock,” McConnell said.
Democrats retort that in today’s world of $30 million – or more – reelection campaigns, it’s easier said than done to force senators to skip long-planned fundraisers.
McConnell himself is now frequently missing when the Senate opens at 2 p.m. on Mondays, and he’s rarely on hand past 5:30 p.m. on weeknights, as he hauls his campaign-check sack across D.C. in search of more money for November.
Overall, McConnell pledged not to fall for something we call “LBJ Syndrome,” which grips many observers of the Senate – the notion that to be a successful majority leader, you have to be as ruthless and cunning as Lyndon Baines Johnson.
Johnson bent people to his will. His successor, Mike Mansfield, had a softer touch.
After Johnson left the Senate, McConnell said, “Mike Mansfield would spend the next 16 years restoring the Senate to a place of greater cooperation.”
But Reid also set out trying to follow the Mansfield blueprint when he took over as majority leader.
“I’m more Mike Mansfield. I’m not LBJ – I don’t twist arms,” Reid told the Washington Post in January 2009.
It remains to be seen, if Republicans win the majority, how long McConnell can live up to the Mansfield model of governing the Senate.