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September 3, 2015

Immigration Bill’s Passage Belies Senate’s Enduring Dysfunction (Updated)

Updated 7:50 p.m. | Thursday may have represented a great victory for advocates of the Senate’s bipartisan rewrite of immigration laws, but the way the debate ended didn’t portend an easing of partisanship in the chamber.

After three weeks of debate and 18 votes, the Senate voted overwhelmingly, 68-32, to pass an immigration overhaul after years of trying and failing to accomplish similar goals.

“At times like these when our better angels are tested again, to reject this bill would tear the fabric of America asunder. It would declare that America no longer seeks to be the shining city on the hill that attracts and is admired by people around the globe,” New York Democratic Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a leader of the “gang of eight,” said just before the vote.

But when the Senate returns after the Independence Day recess, the partisan divide is on track to widen, particularly when it comes to a looming fight over spending and confirmation of a number of outstanding presidential nominees.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has hinted that GOP-led filibusters of Obama administration nominees may prompt him to employ the so-called nuclear option to curtail Republican blockades on the Senate floor. And that ensuing battle could do permanent damage to bipartisan relations.

To be sure, the Senate’s dysfunction eased slightly during debate on the immigration overhaul, but signs of trouble remained even as supporters praised passage.

Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, D-La., spoke at length on the floor last week as the immigration amendment process appeared to be at a logjam. In an interview after Thursday’s vote, she expressed her support for the final immigration product but again criticized the procedural obstacles once the bill reached the floor.

“I have a lot of respect for the ‘gang of eight’ and for Sen. [Patrick J.] Leahy in the way he conducted the Judiciary Committee, which was as open as any … committee markup that I’ve seen around here in a long time,” she said.

But Landrieu, who has a habit of speaking her mind, did not mince words about what she viewed as a victory for immigration but an omen for the Senate’s operations.

“The Senate stood up and met that challenge. The downside is, unfortunately there are still a handful of senators on the Republican side — and they will go unnamed, but most everyone around here knows who they are — that simply refuse to come to any common ground on floor debate, and as a result, once bills get to the floor we have lost the ability to do any significant amending, period,” Landrieu said.

“I don’t regret the effort, I just regret the status that the floor is a broken place right now, despite the great victory that we had,” she said of an attempt to move consensus amendments.

An agreement to consider further amendments never came about after Reid made the procedural moves needed to ensure a timely departure for the July Fourth recess. Advocates and opponents of the immigration package exchanged all-too-familiar barbs over process.

Still, Reid took steps before the immigration debate got under way to avoid contentious issues, saying he didn’t plan to bring anything else to the floor that could complicate the bipartisan bill.

“I’m going to do nothing to interfere with immigration. I think it’s important for our country,” Reid told reporters May 23.

Accordingly, the Senate processed some noncontroversial business while the immigration debate carried on but steered clear of serious controversies. For instance, senators this week easily confirmed Penny Pritzker to be Commerce secretary (that vote was 99-1) and Anthony Foxx to be Transportation secretary (that vote was 100-0). However, Reid didn’t move to call votes on nominees that would face lots of Republican opposition, such as Thomas E. Perez to helm the Labor Department or Gina McCarthy to be EPA administrator.

But now that immigration has passed, Senate Republicans expect those nominations and others to face votes in July, with Reid moving forward on his plan to put the opposition to the test. That could lead to a move by Democrats to effectively change the Senate’s rules with a simple majority vote using the nuclear option if the GOP engages in filibusters of too many nominees, keeping President Barack Obama from getting his choices in place.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and other Republicans have given regular floor speeches throughout the immigration debate about the rules.

Then there’s the issue of federal spending.

The Senate Appropriations Committee is processing regular fiscal 2014 appropriations bills through committee, with the Transportation-HUD and Energy-Water measures moving through the panel Thursday morning. Four of them will be ready for the floor, if Reid chooses to call them up.

However, Republicans have uniformly opposed the top-line spending levels developed by Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md.

Landrieu, who chairs the appropriations subpanel overseeing the Department of Homeland Security budget, pointed to Mikulski as the best hope for that process, which has totally broken down in recent years.

“My only optimism rests on the leader of the committee itself. Barbara Mikulski is truly an extraordinary leader, and if anybody can find a way forward, you know, when we get to the floor, she can,” Landrieu said.

Update 7:50 p.m.

A senior Democratic aide tells our colleague Humberto Sanchez that Reid’s expected to file motions to limit debate on at least one of number of contentious nominations during the week of July 8.  Cloture motions for McCarthy at EPA and Perez at  Labor are among the possibilities.

In addition to McCarthy and Perez, Reid’s choices include nominees to positions at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the National Labor Relations Board who currently hold disputed recess appointments. The Supreme Court announced this week that next term, it plans to consider a case involving the NLRB that hinges on the Constitution’s definition of “the Recess of the Senate.”

The Senate did confirm several other nominations before adjourning for the holiday break Thursday, including one very important to Reid — the reappointment of Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairwoman Allison M. Macfarlane. Like Reid, she’s an opponent of establishing a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

Macfarlane will now be at the commission through June 30, 2018.

Just last week, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., referenced the Yucca project during a debate over the Senate’s rules.


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