Dead end amendments pave path to next election
Saturday, June 18, 2011
WASHINGTON (AP) — Very little on a GOP wish list of amendments to a Senate jobs bill stands a chance of winning approval. But it's hardly an exercise in futility.
Offering amendments doomed to failure is a tactic both parties use to highlight their agendas and box the other side into politically awkward votes.
Those efforts include blocking President Barack Obama's health care overhaul, repealing last year's rewrite of financial regulations, completing the fence along the border with Mexico and prohibiting the Interior Department from classifying the sand dune lizard and prairie chicken as endangered species. The proposed changes come on a jobs bill the Senate's been debating for the past two weeks.
Democrats expected to lose their bid to repeal tax breaks for big oil companies, but forced a roll-call vote on it anyway. They also forced a roll call on a budget by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., that included a transformation of the popular Medicare program, which was defeated as expected.
What Republicans get from their going-nowhere amendments is an opportunity to please conservative and business constituencies and contributors, embarrass Democrats and shine a spotlight on priorities they would push should they capture control of the Senate and perhaps the White House in next year's elections.
"Republicans can go back to their states and say, 'I fought for you and unfortunately the Democrats have the majority.' They can use these as campaign messages back in their states," said Ron Bonjean, a private GOP strategist who advises congressional leaders. He added, "It can cause potential contributors to open up their wallets."
The political tenor of the amendments underscores a year in which Congress is enacting little unless it is a necessity, bipartisan or harmless, such as naming federal buildings. With Republicans controlling the House and Democrats holding the Senate and White House, each party can derail the other's initiatives.
As a result, out of 3,415 bills introduced so far this year through Wednesday, just 18 have become law, according to the Library of Congress' THOMAS database.
This has left lawmakers often playing to November 2012, when voters might change the equation by awarding one party or the other control of the levers of government.
Some Democrats say the pile of GOP amendments to the economic development bill is designed to defeat it. They predict that once Democratic leaders block votes on most of those amendments, GOP senators will use that as an excuse to prevent the overall measure from coming to a final vote next week.
"All they want to do is play politics and say Democrats are ineffective, Obama is ineffective," Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chief author of the economic development legislation, said in an interview. "They're trying to kill this bill."
Some Republicans like Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., say they do want to abolish the Economic Development Administration, a 46-year-old agency with a $300 million annual budget that the legislation would renew for five years. Democrats say the program has generated hundreds of thousands of jobs and is needed especially at a time of high unemployment. Republicans cite historically high federal deficits and say the program is wasteful and overrated.
Other Republicans say their numerous amendments are attempts to address key issues that Democrats prevented them from bringing up as amendments to other bills.
"That's a lot of my job here, to make sure the people of the country hear the things that are important to the people around me," said Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., who has offered an amendment empowering states to ignore the health care overhaul law, which remains unpopular with many voters.
Democrats would prefer dodging votes on several of the amendments assembled by Republicans.
One by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., would mirror Obama's initial proposal to extend the government's lapsed borrowing authority without any accompanying budget savings. Facing huge federal deficits and under pressure from the GOP, the administration has conceded that raising the debt limit must be linked to savings. Democrats would likely be split if forced to vote on a plan without budget cuts.
Other GOP amendments with scant chance of winning approval include:
—One by DeMint repealing last year's law overhauling the nation's financial regulations. Obama and congressional Democrats enacted the law over solid GOP opposition and it remains unpopular with big-ticket contributors from Wall Street. Others by DeMint would repeal federal inheritance taxes and require the administration to complete a fence along the Mexican border within a year.
—A proposal by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and another by Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., to prevent the Interior Department from listing the sand dune lizard and the prairie chicken as endangered species. Cornyn and Inhofe say the listings would endanger energy development.
—Two by Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, requiring agencies to study the impact of new regulations on job creation and making independent agencies perform cost-benefit analyses of some proposals.
—An effort by Sen. Michael Enzi, R-Wyo., to repeal standards requiring more efficient light bulbs.
—Another by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, delaying implementation of the health care overhaul until lawsuits challenging its constitutionality are resolved.
"That's just to keep in the forefront that it is costing hundreds of millions for states and businesses to implement a law that may well be declared unconstitutional in the courts," Hutchison said of her motivation for offering the amendment despite low odds of success.
Democrats have offered nearly two dozen amendments, including one that Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., wrote with Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and was approved Thursday. It would eliminate a tax credit for oil refiners who mix ethanol with their gasoline.
A week earlier, the Senate defeated an amendment by Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, that would have made it harder for government agencies to issue regulations affecting small companies.
Snowe said her amendment was aimed at creating jobs. She said she introduced it after Democrats denied her a vote last month while promising hearings that never happened. "It is all a masquerade, a facade," she said during debate. "It appears to me that there is no interest in solving this problem here in Washington."
Democrats said that if Republicans were serious, they would have tried crafting a compromise with Democrats.
"This is not about finding a solution," said Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La. "This is about public relations, campaigns and Republican rhetoric about the election."