Jonathan Chait

The GOP's Secret Senate Plan

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One of the oddities of the debate over repealing Don't Ask Don't Tell is that Republican moderates seem far more interested in procedure than substance. They favor repeal, but they oddly seem to care more that the Senate hew to Mitch McConnell's run-out-the-clock timetable than they care about the outcome of the issue:

Here's what Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) told Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid that she needs to support a full Senate debate on the defense authorization bill (the vehicle for Don't Ask, Don't Tell repeal): 15 guaranteed votes on amendments (10 for Republicans, and 5 for Democrats), and somewhere around four days to debate the bill.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid already promised her the 15 amendments, but his initial offer was for a day or two of debate. Here's her response to reporters tonight, after a Senate vote.

"The majority leader's allotment of time for to debate those amendments was extremely short, so I have suggested doubling the amount of time, assuring that there would be votes, and making sure that the Republicans get to pick our own amendments as opposed to the Majority Leader."

"If he does that I will do all that I can to help him proceed to the bill. But if he does not do that, then I will not," she added.

Is this some bizarre kind of Senate-ism, where process trumps all? Possibly. I think it's something different.

Earlier this summer, Joe Biden claimed that several Republican Senators told him that they had promised to hold together on every procedural vote:

"I know at least 7 [GOP] senators, who I will not name, but were made to make a commitment under threat of losing their chairmanships, if they did not support the leadership on every procedural vote," Biden said at a fundraiser Monday night.

I can't prove that Biden isn't making this up. But it sure would explain a lot. It would explain the fact that Republicans consistently gave up the chance to trade their vote in return for wielding significant influence over major legislation. It would explain Olympia Snowe's odd to decision to vote against cloture on the health care bill on the Senate floor (a procedural vote) after voting for essentially the same care bill in the Finance Committee (not a procedural vote.) It would also explain how Snowe and other Republicans negotiating the bill refused to lay out conditions for supporting it other than extending the negotiations indefinitely.

McConnell's pitch to the moderates appears to revolve around the need to negotiate together, and thus that all Republicans needed to threaten to filibuster everything in order to force Democrats to negotiate with McConnell:

“We came in shellshocked,” said Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. “There was sort of a feeling of ‘every man for himself.’ Mitch early on in this session came up with a game plan to make us relevant with 40 people. He said if we didn’t stick together on big things, we wouldn’t be relevant.”

The end result was that moderate Republicans ceded enormous power to McConnell, whose overriding goal was not to advance centrist legislation but to defeat Obama. In any case, I think Republicans did promise to hold together on all procedural votes, and I think this promise was the whole key to the 2009-10 legislative session.

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