What prompted Harry Reid to act

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) surprised many last week when he got so fed up with Republican obstructionism, he took a rather bold step. Using a ruling from the chair to lower the boom, Reid effectively created a new rule: if a bill has overcome a filibuster on the motion to proceed, and then overcome another filibuster on the floor before a final vote, the minority can’t engage in another de facto filibuster with amendment stunts.

Today, the Senate leader explained the circumstances that led to his decision.

On Thursday morning, we seemed to be on the brink of passing a bill to curb unfair currency manipulation by the Chinese government, a practice that has cost millions of American manufacturing jobs over the past two decades. The bill — which is supported by business and labor interests — had garnered a bipartisan supermajority not just once but twice. With passage virtually assured, the minority reached for the only tool left to try and derail the bill, confronting us with a potentially unlimited number of votes on completely unrelated amendments. Voting on these amendments would require suspending the Senate’s rules — an obscure procedure that hadn’t been used frequently until this Congress and hasn’t been used successfully since 1941.

None of the amendments Republicans demanded were about policy…. Yet still we tried to reach a compromise with our Republican colleagues.

We offered votes on four amendments, and they wanted five. We offered five votes, and they wanted six. Finally, we offered votes on seven amendments, including a vote on an outdated version of President Obama’s American Jobs Act, with which Republicans were seeking to score political points. Still, Republicans refused. They came back with a demand for nine votes that required suspending the Senate’s rules. The same logic that allows for nine unstoppable motions to suspend the rules could lead to consideration of 99 such motions.

These details explain quite a bit.

The Senate minority’s ability to filibuster remains intact, and as the Nevada senator put it, last week’s developments “merely return the Senate to the regular order.”

Senate Republicans, as it turns out, don’t quite see it this way, and have vowed “they will retaliate” for Reid’s interference with their petty, partisan games. And in case you thought the upper chamber couldn’t get any more ridiculous than it already is, rest assured, it can get worse: “Republican aides say their bosses will now be even more reluctant to allow the Senate to conduct routine business by unanimous consent, forcing Reid to gather 60 votes for even the most mundane matters.”

The next question, I suppose, is how much longer policymakers will tolerate an untenable status quo. The Senate wasn’t designed to work this way; it didn’t use to work this way; and it simply can’t work this way.

At a certain level, it may not seem to matter much anymore, since the radicalized House majority makes lawmaking impossible anyway. Even if the Senate could be made less dysfunctional, any worthwhile legislation that would pass the chamber would die in the House, nominations notwithstanding.

But the nation still needs a functioning Senate, and it doesn’t have one. What’s needed now is not retaliation, but reform. If GOP leaders are disgusted that Dems prevented them from using the Senate as a toy last week, they should seek out Democratic leaders for discussions on how to make the institution less ridiculous. This won’t happen — Republicans don’t want to govern; they want to undermine confidence in America’s public institutions — but the possible result is a total breakdown of Washington’s ability to do anything at all.