Plum Line report got ya down?
The GOP Senate leadership has privately settled on a strategy to derail health reform if Dems try to pass the Senate bill with a fix through reconciliation, aides say: Unleash an endless stream of amendments designed to stall for time and to force Dems to take untenable votes.
Yes, yes. We knew that was coming:
And nevermind that debate on reconciliation bills is limited by statute to 20 hours, which is why it's not subject to the filibuster. Duh. Yes, there's more to it than that, but we'll talk about that some other time.
Well, I guess now's that other time.
Can the Senate GOP try this? Yes they can. Debate on reconciliation bills, as with budget resolutions, are time-limited by statute -- 50 hours for a budget resolution, 20 hours for a reconciliation bill, 10 hours for a conference report on a reconciliation bill. But yes, technically any amendments still pending at the end of the time period could be eligible for a vote -- just with no debate. It's a situation that comes up often at the end of budget resolutions, called a vote-a-rama, believe it or not.
Gregg is proposing doing something similar with the reconciliation bill. Can he do it? Well, not according to Think Progress and the O'Neill Institute blog, both of which relay the reaction of former Senate parliamentarian Bob Dove:
"That’s patently absurd," Robert Dove told me when I relayed to him these aides’ claims.
The O'Neill blog adds another important note:
Vice President Biden is the ultimate decider.
By which it's meant that though the parliamentarian advises on such issues, it's the presiding officer of the Senate who makes the actual rulings -- though they're certainly loathe to contradict the parliamentarian in doing so.
But what if they could do it? How would it work? Well, Republicans would basically have to stay on the Senate floor, coming up with amendment after amendment, and trying not to look too silly doing it. There would be no debate allowed on the amendments, since time would have expired (though they can sometimes grant themselves unanimous consent for a few minutes of debate if it's thought to be a worthy amendment), so it'd just be them and us, standing there on the floor, with them on C-SPAN2 trying desperately to come up with something new to say to keep the debate going.
Does this sound familiar? Like maybe similar to something everybody has been saying they wanted to force Republicans to do, anyway? Hmm. Interesting. And what better way to have it, than under circumstances where Republicans weren't really allowed to say all that much?
Anyway, there's also another point this situation reminds me of.
There's an October 3, 1977 precedent from when Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) was Majority Leader, wherein faced with an exploitation of an old cloture rule loophole that allowed Senators to file the same sort of endless stream of amendments, even after cloture had already been invoked, he addressed the chair with this point of order, which was sustained by the chair:
I make the point that when the Senate is operating under cloture the Chair is required to take the initiative under rule XXII to rule out of order all amendments which are dilatory or which on their face are out of order.
The point having been sustained (and an appeal of the ruling tabled, which requires a simple majority vote), Byrd used his right of preferential recognition as Majority Leader to call up all the rest of the amendments one at a time, whereupon the chair ruled each of them out of order on its own motion. (Source - warning, PDF)
I would argue that if that point of order can be sustained for the post-cloture environment, when debate is limited to 30 hours, surely it should be sustained for the reconciliation environment, when debate is limited to just 20.
I believe the same point of order can and should be made and sustained -- if we even get that far, given what former parliamentarian Bob Dove had to say -- and that Harry Reid might then use his right to preferential recognition to call up all pending amendments, and have them ruled on immediately by the chair.
Would they do such a thing? I don't know. But could they? I believe they could. And quite frankly, it's a good exercise for thinking about more Senate rules reform (cough -- filibuster! -- cough) in the future. We already know that's on everyone's lips.