Thursday, Oct. 6, 2011 | 7:57 p.m.
The arcane rules of procedure exercised on the floors of Congress don't get written about very often. But an incident on the Senate floor tonight carried a larger lesson: Push Sen. Harry Reid too far and he will change the rules of the Senate into perpetuity to put you in your place.
From this night on, senators will no longer be able to move to suspend the rules that require all bill amendments to be on-topic, a move the minority party sometimes avails itself of to force votes on topics the majority would rather block.
It's known as the "nuclear option," but just as with real nukes, the bomb is rarely dropped in battle.
Reid did tonight.
It started over a disagreement between Reid and Republican Leader Mitch McConnell over what amendments Republicans would be permitted to present to a bill censuring and punishing the Chinese for manipulating their currency, the yuan — a practice that's tantamount to subsidizing exports, which keeps Chinese goods cheaper than they should be.
McConnell had been rattling Reid, telling the majority leader that he'd never clear the filibuster-busting threshold necessary to advance the legislation. Midday, Reid did with room to spare, pulling enough Republicans on board for a 62-to-38 vote. On to the bill.
That meant it was time for an argument about amendments.
After years as the majority leader, Reid has mastered loading up what's called the "amendment tree" — the roster of amendments to an underlying piece of legislation, which is procedurally limited depending on the type of bill. That Reid boxes out the minority is a constant Republican complaint.
But Thursday afternoon, Reid decided to play ball: he'd take seven of the nine amendments McConnell was pushing hard to include. It didn't take long for Reid and McConnell to come to blows.
McConnell picked seven, but Reid didn't like one: an amendment by Mike Johans, R-Neb., objecting to an Environmental Protection Agency rule that would have declared certain farm dusts toxic. It's also a measure that probably would have secured bipartisan support from senators in rural states.
Reid couldn't get an agreement from his caucus on that, he protested — much to McConnell's anger.
As McConnell ranted about the right of Republicans to pick their own amendments, Reid quietly pulled out a procedural move few others saw coming (even though Reid was planning it since Thursday morning): raising a point of order against using motions to suspend the rules, then objecting to it on McConnell's behalf, and finally, instructing his caucus — all but one of whom did as instructed — to vote against the objection.
The vote was 48 to 51.
Boom. Motions to suspend amendments are dead.
“There has to be some end to the dilatory tactics to stop things,” Reid said of the need for the move. "This has to come to an end. This is not a way to legislate."
It's not clear what this will actually do on a day-to-day basis. While motions to suspend have been overused, Republicans haven't brought one before the Senate this year. And a motion to suspend hasn't actually succeeded since 1941, according to the Office of the Senate Historian.
It's also still possible for the minority to appeal the Senate chair's ruling about whether any individual amendment is germane to the topic of the underlying bill — but to carry such an appeal, you'd need 60 votes, which is hard to get if you're in the minority.
But from now on, the option is dead, until someone figures out a way to revive it. Given the Senate's recent experience trying to rewrite the rules surrounding the filibuster by formal process, it's not likely it will change any time soon.
"This is a bad mistake...We are fundamentally turning the Senate into the House," McConnell said, his anger apparent as he complained about Reid's efforts to limit the application of the filibuster and expedite the Senate process by a simple majority, as he did Thursday night. "America doesn't need less debate, it needs more debate, and when 60 members of the U.S. Senate decide to pass something, it'll pass.
"I hope we'll undo what we did tonight, because it's not in the best interests of this institution or the American people," McConnell continued. "Today's minority may be tomorrow's majority."
But Reid didn't take that threat, either, charging McConnell's problems in the minority were more due to his difficult behavior than the difficulties of his position.
"Let me tell everyone within the sound of my voice: if i were in the minority, I wouldn't do this," he said, referring to use of motions to suspend.
"I think it's dilatory and wrong. I think we have to do a better job of legislating here under the rules," Reid continued. "Am I 100 percent sure that I'm right? No, but I feel pretty comfortable with what we've done."