Imaginative Procedural Maneuvers Help Republicans Stymie Democrats

Originally published in CQ’s Congressional Monitor
By K. Daniel Glover

The partisan rancor that has become commonplace in Congress intensified this year, as lawmakers in both chambers spent an increasing amount of time struggling to overcome procedural roadblocks just to consider legislation.

Angry Democrats accused Republicans of fostering gridlock for political purposes. “They want to have the Democratic majority look as bad as possible,” said George E. Brown Jr., D-Calif. “It’s a hell of a way to run a Congress.”

Republicans countered that obstruction in the interest of killing liberal legislation was no vice. “I make no apologies for killing this turkey of a bill,” Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said after leading a filibuster that halted efforts to overhaul the campaign finance system.

In the Senate, the Republican minority forced votes on cloture, the cutting off of debate, on everything from Clinton administration nominations to anti-crime legislation. The GOP successfully stifled the wishes of the majority on major initiatives such as overhauling campaign finances and banning gifts to lawmakers.

House Republicans did not enjoy the procedural advantages of their counterparts in the Senate, where the rules give a single senator formidable powers to slow action. But with combative Minority Whip Newt Gingrich, Ga., setting strategy, the House Republicans were equally aggressive in their efforts to thwart the will of Democratic leaders.

With the help of conservative Democrats, they prevented floor consideration of measures such as one that would have elevated the Environmental Protection Agency to Cabinet-level status. They used the same tactic — opposition to a rule that governs floor debate on a bill — to force President Clinton and the Democratic leadership to trim the cost of “social programs” in the anti-crime legislation.

And when House Republicans failed to kill a California desert protection bill outright as the 103rd Congress came to a close, they demanded a string of roll-call votes on everything from motions to table to motions to adjourn. That brought legislative action to a standstill for an entire afternoon.

As often is the case, the procedural maneuvering became more frequent in the waning days of the session.

Democratic leaders on both sides of the Capitol grew more and more bitter as the session lingered, with House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, Wash., and Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, Maine, routinely lambasting Republicans for their stall tactics, particularly the use of the Senate filibuster.

The struggle over campaign finance legislation heightened the animosity. Senate Republicans initiated a three-pronged filibuster that prevented Democrats from even convening a formal conference with the House on the bill, thus killing it.

Foley called it “the worst case of obstruction by filibuster by any party that I’ve ever seen in my 30 years in Congress.” And the episode prompted Mitchell to call for a limit on the use of two rules that make the Senate a unique legislative institution, the filibuster and the right to offer unlimited amendments to legislation, whether related to the bill or not.

Mitchell warned Republicans that they may come to regret their actions. “I can say with some certainty that at some point in our future history, they will regain control of the Senate,” he said. “And when they do, they’re likely to reap … the harvest of the seeds they’ve planted this year.”

Republicans: no apologies
Far from discouraging Republicans, however, the barrage of criticism from the Democratic side of the aisle seems only to have emboldened the minority.

California Republican John T. Doolittle, who initiated the series of procedural votes Oct. 4 on the California desert bill, said Democrats are to blame for the lack of comity in Congress today. “Their procedures aggravate us far more than ours aggravate them,” he said.

David Dreier, also a California Republican, agreed. A member of the Rules Committee, Dreier said it is disingenuous of Democrats to complain about the GOP’s use of procedures to delay action on Democratic initiatives when they routinely use the same rule book to block the Republican agenda.

Dreier said that the Democrats attempt to dictate House action with “an arrogant mentality that we’ve observed for four decades of one-party rule. The only way to respond to that kind of arrogance is with these kinds of tactics.”