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Mitch McConnell and 'regular order': Just flirting or going steady?

Republican leader's crackdown on amendments reflects how hard it is to get things done in the Senate

New Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) promised senators late last year that he'd return to the "regular order" of debate and amendments that his predecessor, Democrat Harry Reid of Nevada, had abandoned. But as the Senate struggled to finish work last week on a bill to clear the way for the Keystone XL pipeline, McConnell showed he knows how to slam down the lid too.

Now the question is, how will McConnell balance his wish for regular order with the need to keep bills moving and get things done? And will Democrats use the openings to push for compromises or just score political points?

Although the Senate has voted on only two bills so far in 2015, the debates have yielded a few clues about how things will play out.

Most notably, McConnell didn't use his control over the floor to pre-emptively block any and all amendments through a tactic known as "filling the tree." It's a technique Reid used routinely, ostensibly because Republicans would otherwise gum up the legislative works with non-germane amendments designed to embarrass vulnerable Democrats. The effect, though, was to prevent Democrats from amending bills too.

Nor did McConnell move to cut off debate on the bills before they even reached the floor, as Reid frequently did. Reid's staff has defended the tactic, arguing that his hand was forced by continual GOP filibusters. Republicans countered that threatening filibusters was the only way they could pressure Democrats to negotiate.

By the end of Thursday, the Senate had already held more up-or-down votes on amendments in 2015 -- 16 -- than it did in all of last year. That's in addition to votes to table eight other amendments.

But McConnell wasn't exactly leaving the floor open. He insisted that senators agree to a 60-vote threshold to attach non-germane amendments to S 1, the Keystone XL bill. And he abruptly clamped down late Thursday, moving to table a string of Democratic proposals before they could be discussed or even described. Motions to table aren't debatable, and McConnell wouldn't agree to let the amendment sponsors speak for even a minute.

Peeved Democrats accused the majority leader of trying to clear the decks so Republican senators could attend an event sponsored by the Koch brothers. But at least they had the chance to put Republicans on the record on a number of politically sensitive issues, something Reid rarely gave Republicans an opening to do.

Keystone XL, in fact, is one of the topics that Reid worked assiduously to stop Republicans from bringing to the floor. Having lost 10 seats in November, however, Democrats don't have the votes to stop Keystone from being debated, let alone passing.

The only other measure considered thus far was a must-pass bill to reauthorize and update the federal terrorism risk insurance program, which had expired at the end of 2014. The bill drew an amendment from liberal Democrat Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who proposed to strip the bill of a provision making a business-friendly change to the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law.

Warren argued that the terrorism insurance bill was the wrong place to consider changes to Dodd-Frank, and the Senate shouldn't let House Republicans unravel it piece by piece. The Senate was unmoved, with 13 Democrats joining 53 Republicans in voting against the amendment. The number of Democratic "no" votes indicate that Warren's proposal wasn't ideologically charged, so there wasn't a political reason to avoid a vote on it.

McConnell can't afford to let the Senate take up as much time on every contentious bill as it has on S 1, which has spent more than a week on the floor. And the closer it gets to the 2016 elections, the less substantive and more purely political the debates and amendments are likely to be.

Democrats, meanwhile, have to figure out what to do with the (limited) power of the minority. After McConnell conducted the legislative bum's rush, some Democrats who support Keystone XL hinted that they might be willing to join opponents in refusing to cut off debate. A majority leader who can't invoke cloture on divisive issues is a majority leader who can't get much done.

In other words, if McConnell can't strike the right balance between openness and efficiency, he could find himself in the same spot Reid did, unable to give his opponents an inch without them decrying the fact that they didn't get a mile.

Follow Healey's intermittent Twitter feed: @jcahealey

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