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GOP Agenda: Just Stall

Vitter-ensign.jpg
Vitter-ensign.jpg

Sens. John Ensign (R-Nev.) and David Vitter (R-La.) (WDCpix)

Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) ruffled feathers this month when he drafted a detailed strategy for stalling the health reform bill moving through the upper chamber. Yet Gregg is hardly alone, and health-care legislation is hardly the only target of the GOP’s delay tactics.

[Congress1]Since being swept from power in 2006, Republicans on Capitol Hill have persistently sought ways to slow the Democrats’ legislative agenda, erecting procedural hurdles and proposing contentious amendments to block even those bills supported by GOP leaders. The tactic has targeted legislation touching issues as varied as credit card reform, unemployment insurance and Indian health care. In some cases, Republicans have simply slowed the process; in others, they’ve killed legislation outright. In every instance, the strategy has highlighted the difficulties facing Democratic leaders as they try to make good on a wide range of legislative promises, mark a clean break from the policies of the Bush administration and retain their congressional majorities in elections to come.

In the latest episode, Gregg, the senior Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, issued a memo to his GOP colleagues last week urging them to lean on a host of procedural moves designed to slow the health-reform debate to a crawl.

“[I]t is critical that Republican senators have a solid understanding of the minority’s rights in the Senate,” Gregg wrote.

The memo incited a skirmish on Capitol Hill, with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) decrying the audacity of the Republicans, not only to delay legislation providing millions of Americans with health insurance, but to put their tactics in writing. Gregg responded Friday by referring to Reid’s incredulity as “pathetic.”

But if Gregg’s memo stirred a political storm, it’s likely only because (1) there’s so much at stake surrounding the overhaul of the nation’s health care system, and (2) the memo provided written proof of what the Democrats have been charging all along. Yet the stalling on health reform is just the latest in a long line of similar episodes portraying a much broader, if unmentioned, trend.

**Poison Pills

**

The stalling strategy is one that spans Congresses.** **In 2007, for example, Democrats tried to pass legislation granting the District of Columbia a voting representative on Capitol Hill. Republicans attached an amendment that would have effectively stripped Washington’s strict gun-control laws, essentially killing the bill. In a rerun of that episode, the Senate this year passed a similar D.C.-vote bill, but not before Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) successfully attached a similar gun amendment. The move has left the bill to wallow in the House, where leaders remain opposed to the controversial rider. Meanwhile, the residents of D.C. continue to be without any real voice on federal policy issues.

In a similar case, the Senate last year passed legislation to provide a long-overdue increase in federal spending for the Indian Health Service, which hasn’t seen such a hike in more than a decade. Attached to the Senate bill, however, was a contentious amendment — sponsored by Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) — to permanently ban the use of federal dollars for abortion services for Native Americans. While a similar restriction applies to all populations, it’s not permanent. The distinction left many lawmakers and health-care advocates to wonder why Indians should be subject to health care restrictions not applicable to other ethnicities. Some called the amendment overtly racist. Whatever it’s label, the amendment caused the House to set the bill aside, and it hasn’t been considered since. Meanwhile, the Indian Health Service remains underfunded, and the health-care situation on the nation’s reservations remains a disaster.

There are other cases. The House, for example, moved to electronic filing of financial disclosure forms in 2001, but the Senate still hasn’t done so. The reason? Another Ensign amendment that would force groups that file complaints with the Senate Ethics Committee to disclose their donors — something many non-profits are opposed to doing. Meanwhile, upper-chamber lawmakers continue to file their financial disclosures forms on paper, a process that Brookings Institution scholar Thomas Mann has said “serve[s] no legitimate public or private interest.”

The Stalled Bills

On those bills opposed by Republicans, the stall tactics make sense. With only 40 members in the upper chamber, Republicans have leaned on procedural hurdles and poison-pill amendments to mount the opposition that their numbers can’t. Yet Republicans have also stalled a number of bills that they themselves support, if only to prevent other proposals from reaching the floor. Through the entire month of October, for instance, Republicans held up a popular extension of unemployment benefits, bogging down the bill with amendments on ACORN and the Wall Street bailout — contentious provisions that also had the distinction of being completely unrelated to the underlying bill. (The Senate had already voted on similar ACORN amendments five times to that point in the year.)

“Unlimited debate. Unlimited amendment,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said amid the unemployment debate. “There’s no need for the United States Senate if we don’t have that. … This is the body that protects the minority view.”

Yet when the measure finally came to the floor, it passed 98 to 0 — a clear sign that the Republican’s goal was simply to prolong the debate to prevent the Democrats from considering their other legislative priorities. Meanwhile, an estimated 7,000 Americans were losing their jobless benefits each day, providing those unfortunate folks with a lesson in frustration as well as political science in the age of entrenched partisanship.

More recently, the Senate finally approved an emergency funding bill for disabled veterans. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) had stalled the bill for weeks, protesting that the $3.7 billion price tag wasn’t offset by spending cuts elsewhere in the government. Final passage came only after Democratic leaders agreed to stage a vote on Coburn’s amendment to transfer funds earmarked for the United Nations to pay for the health bill. Though the Coburn amendment failed, the final vote on the underlying bill was 98 to 0, with Coburn supporting it.

In some cases, Democrats have decided to hold their noses and adopt the controversial amendments rather than allowing them to kill the larger bill. That strategy was on display earlier this year during the high-profile debate on credit card reform, when Coburn attached a provision ending a long-standing ban on concealed firearms in national parks. Obama signed that bill into law in May.

The string of delays has created a logjam of must-pass legislation in the upper-chamber, where the health-care debate is certain to monopolize most, if not all, of December. Left undone remains legislation to hike the debt limit, a nascent proposal tackling the nation’s employment crisis, and a handful of spending bills needed to keep the government running.

Indeed, Reid has already floated the possibility that Congress might be back in Washington between Christmas and New Years.

*Researcher Hannah Dreier contributed to this report. *

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