Why we’re waiting on the Senate

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If you have been following the fight over the hours-of-service restart provision you might be wondering what has shut down the U.S. Senate for a week, delaying action on the Booker amendment to retain the current provisions along with the rest of the package of appropriations bills the body was supposed to begin debating on June 17.

As many such battles do, the stalemate boils down to the rules of engagement. In an effort to advance several funding bills, including transportation, in what is called inside the Beltway a “minibus” appropriations bill (Congress usually lumps all appropriations bills together in an omnibus appropriations bill), the Democratic majority insists that 60 votes be necessary to pass any amendments.

The majority’s obvious but unspoken concern is that in an election year where numerous Democratic senators face tough reelection prospects, the Democratic leadership faces either losing on some controversial amendments or forcing embattled Democratic senators to vote with the majority and risk political fallout at home. By establishing a 60-vote minimum for amendments to pass, the Democrats can solve both problems.

Understandably, the Republicans aren’t too happy with this tactic, and so have so far withheld the support needed to move forward. So the Senate left town Thursday night without having accomplished anything the whole week except for approving a few nominations.

There was, of course, lots of time to fill on the Senate floor this week, so for most of the week the Senate was in something called a quorum call. Under official procedure, quorum calls are intended to require that a minimum number of senators report to the Senate floor.

In practice, though, a quorum call usually is just a way for the Senate to do nothing while it is officially doing something. So someone suggests the absence of a quorum, and the clerk calls the roll, at least in theory. In reality, the clerk says “Mr. Alexander” – Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) is the first senator alphabetically – and that’s it, sometimes for hours, until someone comes to the floor and asks unanimous consent that the quorum be dispensed with.

That’s what Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) did at about high noon on Thursday when he decided to use the ample free time on the Senate floor to campaign for his amendment on the HOS restart. Booker’s amendment, which is co-sponsored by a number of Democratic senators, strikes the suspension of the 1 a.m.-to-5 a.m. requirement and the 168-hour rule while keeping in place a study of the restart’s effects on safety, health and operations.

Following Booker was Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), who sponsored the Senate Appropriations Committee amendment to suspend the restart changes pending a study. Supporting Collins were Sens. Roy Blunt (R-MO) and Mary Landrieu (D-LA). To view video of the four senators’ comments, click here. The discussion starts at just past 3 hours, 25 minutes.

Ironically, the very 60-vote minimum for amendments that Democratic leaders are pushing in order to have their cake and eat it too would guarantee that the Booker amendment – which most Democrats probably favor – fails. In theory, that should be true even if the threshold were 51 votes. The seven Democrats who voted in the Appropriations Committee June 5 to suspend the HOS restart changes alone would be enough to defeat the Booker amendment provided that all Republicans voted against it as well.

But the high-profile crash June 7 involving actor/comedian Tracy Morgan brought far more attention to the Senate battle than otherwise likely would have been the case, introducing some measure of political uncertainty and arguably creating some urgency for a compromise. With only 51 votes needed to pass an amendment, Democratic leaders might have some leverage to push the trucking industry’s allies to compromise. At 60 votes, there’s no chance for such pressure.

Senators return to work Monday afternoon. Perhaps by then they will be ready to do something. It could happen. Really.

 

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