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September 18, 2014

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Keeping score in the Senate blame game

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Larry Downing / Associated Press

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid leads Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Whip John Cornyn to the front of the chamber before President Barack Obama delivers the State of Union address Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014, before a joint session of Congress.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid isn’t up for re-election this year, but his name might as well be on every ballot in the nation.

Across the country, 36 Senate races will determine who runs Congress — and sets the national agenda — for the final two years of President Barack Obama’s term. Democrats control the Senate with a five-seat majority, but many analysts say Republicans have a 50-50 shot or better at winning a majority this fall.

At the center of that fight is Reid.

He has used his bully pulpit ahead of the elections to bash Republicans as a party of obstructionists who oppose bills to help immigrants and the working poor. More than any other Senate majority leader in history, he has used his parliamentary powers to block the opposing party from participating in the daily business of the Senate. In the process, he has shielded vulnerable Democrats from controversial Senate votes.

If Reid and the Democrats hold onto their majority, Nevada will continue to have a powerful voice in Washington on everything from Yucca Mountain to gaming. But that’s a big if.

Reid’s maneuvering has made him and Democrats a target for Republicans and outside conservative groups trying to paint him as Washington’s boogeyman.

Senate gridlock is setting the stage for voters in November: Are Reid and the Democrats a symbol of the dysfunction in Washington? Or are Republicans the party of obstructionists?

Both messages will be replayed on political TV ads for months in what is expected to be the most expensive midterm election in history.

A decades-old process gone awry

Reid’s fight with Republicans centers on who can influence bills as they wind through the Senate. Specifically, whether the minority party can make changes to bills through amendments, a centuries-old process that lawmakers rely on to shape legislation.

Unlike the House of Representatives, Senate rules don’t require that amendments be directly related to the bill to which they’re attached.

That has worked in the minority party’s favor since the 1970s. Back then, conservative North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms thwarted the Democratic leadership by adding pro-life amendments to unrelated bills. His aim was to force his colleagues to take a publicly recorded vote on abortion, said the Senate’s historian, Donald Ritchie.

It’s the majority leader’s job to prevent members of his or her party from having to vote on politically unsavory issues. So they started adding amendments that prevented other senators from attaching their own. That’s called “filling the amendment tree,” and it has since become a part of the toolbox for majority leaders.

These fights played out quietly until the early 2000s, when extreme factions within parties latched onto amendments as a way to move their fringe positions into the mainstream.

The once-delicate push and pull over amendments has evolved into a full-scale war between Reid and his Republican counterpart, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

A Senate unable to do its job

This spring, Reid prohibited Republicans from offering amendments on just about every bill that came to the floor. That includes even minor bills that typically would sail through the Senate with bipartisan support, such as proposals to boost energy efficiency and extend popular tax breaks.

Reid accuses Republicans of trying to fill those bills with amendments he says further their anti-Obama agenda. Reid points to Sen. David Vitter, R-La., who keeps trying to offer an amendment to prohibit Capitol Hill staffers from collecting federal health care subsidies.

Republicans say their proposals are relevant and deserve at least a Senate debate. In a May floor speech, McConnell said Democrats had “turned the Senate into a graveyard of good ideas and open, democratic debate.”

Enraged Republicans now vote on principle to shut down all bills — even ones they’ve co-sponsored. In May, three Republicans voted to kill modest legislation they co-sponsored to promote energy efficiency in federal buildings.

When bills like those fail, Reid blames Republicans’ intransigence. Republicans blame Reid’s intransigence. Then the cycle repeats itself on the next bill.

Nevada in particular has lost out. A bill to extend tax breaks to the state’s many underwater homeowners failed to pass in May.

An election line for both parties

The gridlock has benefited Democrats facing tough re-election bids.

For example, it helped protect Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., from taking difficult votes. Landrieu is on record supporting controversial environmental legislation, including building the Keystone Pipeline through the United States between Canada and Mexico. But the amendment debate prevented a Senate vote on the issue and saved Landrieu from the risk of angering her Democratic base that opposes the pipeline.

Reid blames Republicans for his tight control of the Senate.

“If that makes me powerful, that’s too bad,” Reid told reporters in May. “The only reason I’m doing this is because, for the past 5 1/2 years, everything this president has tried to do, they’ve stepped in the way.”

Republicans see it differently. They call Reid “the dictator” with more power than the famously heavy-handed Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson, whom author Robert Caro dubbed master of the Senate. In particular, Republicans point to a historical change Reid got passed to limit the power of the minority party to influence executive and judicial nominees through filibusters.

In Kentucky, McConnell wasted no time making his re-election campaign a referendum on Reid.

After winning his May primary, McConnell tied his Democratic opponent, Alison Lundergan Grimes, to Reid.

“If the American people give Republicans a majority in the Senate, you’ll be proud of the United States Senate once again,” he said.

Reid has blocked amendments from the minority party twice as often as all previous majority leaders combined, parliamentary expert Martin Gold told The Hill, a Washington political newspaper. But Ritchie pointed out that Reid also is leading the Senate through the most polarized political climate in U.S. history.

The truth is, both parties play this game when they’re in the majority, he said. Reid himself criticized the amendment process when Republicans held the Senate.

Neither party is happy with the way the Senate works, or doesn’t. But they will spend millions of dollars on ads this fall telling voters that the other party is at fault.

Reid’s position as one of the nation’s most powerful politicians depends on who voters think is right.

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