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A procedural cold war that has simmered all year in the Senate escalated into a full-blown confrontation late Thursday, upending Senate rules and halting final approval of an otherwise bipartisan bill to punish China and other countries believed to be undervaluing their currencies.
The showdown set a precedent in the wonkish world of Senate procedure: It slaps greater restrictions on the rights of the minority party to amend legislation.
After two hours of jousting, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the majority leader, postponed the currency bill vote until Tuesday.
Problems unfolded early as Reid and the Senate's Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, squared off in a round of procedural one-upmanship that has come to define the hyper-partisan nature of politics in Washington.
It started, as so many problems do in the Senate, with a fight over amendments. Republicans, the minority party, wanted to offer more and different amendments to the currency bill than Democrats would allow.
Democrats, tired of Republicans filibustering every step of the way to advance legislation -- requiring 60-vote super-majorities -- had had enough.
The currency bill had already cleared the steepest hurdle -- breaking the filibuster -- and most of the amendments would likely fail. One was a GOP effort to vote on President Obama’s jobs package. Technically, they weren’t even amendments, but procedural motions.
Republicans sought one last avenue of recourse, appealing to the parliamentarian to offer their motions. The parliamentarian ruled the motions were allowed. But Reid appealed, called the vote and the Democratic majority struck down the ruling. The precedent had been set – no longer could such motions be offered.
Minority rights were invoked and patience thinned.
“In the United States Senate, the minority has the right to be heard,” McConnell, usually reserved, thundered on the floor.
The chamber was filled with senators. Some expressed their frustration with the state of affairs. A newcomer, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), pleaded with Reid for fairness. A veteran, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), said it had come to this because Republicans insisted on filibustering every little thing.
The discourse sounded like part group counseling session, part peace treaty negotiations. Like most conflicts, this procedural arms race has origins on both sides.
“Maybe there’s blame to go around – there probably is,” Reid said.
Reid let it slip that he had been thinking the time had come to call a joint caucus meeting – Republicans and Democrats in the same room. He suggested he might want to do this the first week in November.
Until then, the simmering cold war will probably continue.