Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., offered a plan for "restoring the Senate," a sort of contract for the 2014 elections, detailing how he would end bad practices that have become standard operating procedure for Democrats and Republicans.
"Now, let me state at the outset that it’s not my intention to point the finger of blame at anybody, though some of that’s inevitable," McConnell said in a floor speech as prepared for delivery. "And I certainly don’t claim to be without any fault. But I am certain of one thing — that the Senate can be better."
The Republican leader argued that Senate dysfunction springs not from how arcane rules create gridlock, but how politicians in both parties abuse those rules.
"As I see it, a major turning point came during the final years of the Bush administration, when the Democrat majority held vote after vote on bills they knew wouldn’t pass," he said in the prepared speech. "I’m not saying Republicans never staged a show-vote when we were in the majority. I’m not saying I don’t enjoy a good messaging vote from time to time. But it’s become much too routine. ... Over the past several years the Senate seems more like a campaign studio than a serious legislative body. Both sides have said and done things over the past few years we probably wish we hadn’t. But we can improve the way we do business."
To that end, McConnell called for the restoration of the committee process and open up the amendment process. Both proposals reflect regular complaints that Republicans make about Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. GOP leaders argued that Reid dominates the legislative process, as when he thwarted then-Senate Budget Committee chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., who wanted to mark up a budget in 2012, and that he prevents senators from offering amendments in order to force Republicans into uncomfortable positions and protect Democratic lawmakers from tough votes.
McConnell noted that Medicare, Medicaid, the Voting Rights Act and other major pieces of legislation passed with very broad bipartisan support.
"None of this happened by throwing these bills together in a backroom and dropping them on the floor with a stopwatch running," he said. "It happened through a laborious process of legislating, persuasion and coalition-building. It took time and patience and hard work, and it guaranteed that every one of these laws had stability."
He cited the writing of Obamacare as an example of a legislative process that eschewed those traditional best practices (although a Democrat might counter that Senate Republicans decided not to collaborate on Obamacare in order to create a political wedge issue for the 2010 elections).
McConnell also called for senators to put in more work on the floor. "The only way 100 senators will truly be able to have their say, the only way we’ll be able to work through our tensions and disputes, is if we’re here more," he suggested. "It’s the best way I know to force an outcome everybody’s satisfied with. We got a glimpse of that during last year's budget debate. Somebody who has two dozen amendments at noon starts to prioritize those amendments around midnight. They start talking about what it would take to get unanimous consent. That’s how you reach consensus — by working, and talking, and cooperating, through give and take."
The speech reads like a description of how McConnell says he will run the Senate if Republicans retake the majority in 2014.
It might also complicate Republican efforts to find a silver lining in Reid's decision to weaken the filibuster through the nuclear option last year.
"The newly majoritarian Senate will pose new risks for everyone -- conservatives included," David Freddoso wrote in a Washington Examiner column in November. "But given that the status quo in federal law has been well to the left of common sense for so long, conservatives have a lot less to lose from this new world the liberals have just made possible."
McConnell seemed to reject that path. "And when the majority leader decided a few weeks back to defy bipartisan opposition by changing the rules that govern this place with a simple majority vote, he broke something," he said in the prepared speech. "But our response can’t be to just sit back and accept the demise of the Senate. This body has survived mistakes and excesses before. ... Indeed, it’s during periods of the greatest polarization that the value of the Senate is most clearly seen."