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From Day One, Senate’s time stands still
Chamber’s former parliamentarian disputes Reid’s procedural maneuver
In the real world, it’s late January, the days last 24 hours, and people are doing their jobs. But in the crazy confines of the Senate it’s still Jan. 3 — literally.
The Senate is technically still on the first legislative day of the new Congress, as Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, has used a parliamentary trick to buy senators more time to try to work out a deal on curbing the use of filibusters.
That means that rather than adjourn each day, as they normally would, the Senate takes a recess and returns in the morning with the calendar theoretically still stuck on Jan. 3.
“I always joke that in the 19th century, when the Senate was running out of time at the end of the session, they’d have a staff member stand up with a broom handle and turn the hands of the clock back a couple of hours to give them more time,” said Senate historian Don Ritchie. “So the Senate can change time, and they can change days. They can operate on their own days, whenever.”
It’s not unheard of. State legislatures across the country regularly use the same technique when they are racing against a deadline. Some of them go so far as to literally stop the chamber’s clock or cover it up, symbolizing the stoppage of time.
In this case, Mr. Reid is trying to change the rules of the Senate to limit filibusters, and he argues that the rules can be changed on the first day of a new Congress by a majority vote. At all other times, rules changes require a two-thirds vote.
“Democrats reserve the right of all senators to propose changes to Senate rules,” Mr. Reid said on the Senate floor Wednesday. “We will explicitly not acquiesce in the carrying over of all the rules from the last Congress.”
They argue that the Senate is a continuing body, and that the rules carry over from one Congress to another, and must take a two-thirds vote to change. They point to several actions Democrats have already taken this year under the existing rules, such as naming acting presidents pro tem, as evidence that the rules are in place.
Ilona Nickels, a former parliamentary adviser with the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, said that while there may be some precedent for Mr. Reid’s move, “the argument these days that the Senate did it once before isn’t the soundest argument to make in contemporary times.”
“It’s no more significant to the first day of a session than the fifth day or the 12th day or any day,” said Mr. Dove, who served as parliamentarian from 1981 to 1987, and again from 1995 to 2001.
“There are some people who want you to believe that somehow after the Senate comes back after an election they’re kind of in a state of nature, and they have no rules. That has never been the interpretation of the Senate. Ever.”
Mr. Ritchie, the Senate’s official historian, said Richard Nixon was the first to advocate for the “first day” procedure in the 1950s while serving as Senate president, which was part of his duties as vice president. Hubert H. Humphrey and Nelson Rockefeller also proposed it when they served as vice president.
But Mr. Ritchie said the debate on the first-day procedure isn’t partisan, but rather “is a majority-party position vs. a minority-party position.”
“If the parties were to change tomorrow, their positions on the issue would change,” he said. “It’s quite amazing how quickly they can change [positions] on those issues.”
Then-Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat, holds the record for shepherding the longest legislative day in the chamber, which began on Jan. 3, 1980, and lasted for 162 calendar days.
Mr. Reid said Wednesday he was “cautiously optimistic” that he will be able to reach bipartisan deal on filibuster reforms. But, if not, he suggested he wouldn’t hesitate to force a simple majority vote on the issue.
The filibuster — which has a long history in the Senate, but which doesn’t exist in the House — is a procedural move used to stall or block bills or nominees and requires at least 60 votes to overcome — a near-impossible scenario with the Democratic caucus’ slim majority since 2009.
Democrats have accused Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of abusing the rule, saying he has used it so excessively it has mired the chamber in historic gridlock. The Kentucky Republican has countered he is left with no choice because Mr. Reid often refuses to allow many — or any — Republican amendments to legislation.
• Stephen Dinan contributed to this article.
© Copyright 2013 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
About the Author
Sean Lengell covers Congress and national politics and can be reached at email@example.com.
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