WASHINGTON — Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee says the U.S. Senate is broken. Case in point: a recent bill to extendlong-term jobless benefits.
The measure cleared a procedural hurdle on Jan. 7, when enough Republicans joined Democrats in moving it closer to a final vote. Now, however, it's in limbo, after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reidrestricted the number of amendments and set a 60-vote threshold for each one to pass — conditions Republicans rejected.
Alexander had planned to offer his own proposal to reform an inefficient federal job training program that provides millions to the Volunteer State each year. But Reid feared that allowing such amendments would delay the bill and invite Republicans to try again to roll back parts of the 2010 Affordable Care Act.
Alexander says the stalemate is just the latest symptom of the Senate's inability to function, a condition he says impedes his ability to represent Tennessee.
"It's worse than it's ever been," Alexander lamented in a recent interview. "And I've watched it for a long time."
Alexander, who has represented the Volunteer State since 2003, still reveres the Senate, where he served as an aide to Tennessee Republican Howard Baker in the 1960s and won confirmation as education secretary in 1991.
But he said recent rule changes and maneuvering by the Democratic majority have rendered Republicans practically impotent in a chamber where thoughtful, bipartisan discourse has long been a cherished virtue.
Democrats felt the same way when Republicans were in charge. They counter that Alexander and his fellow Republicans are prime culprits in the Senate's dysfunction.
They say the changes, including Reid's historic move in November to end filibusters of most judicial nominees, were prompted by repeated, partisan attempts to block President Barack Obama's agenda. Reid initially resisted changing the rules but did so after the GOP blocked action on three of Obama's nominees to a powerful federal appeals court.
Reid points out that roughly half of the 168 filibusters of executive and judicial nominees "in the history of the Republic" have occurred since Obama took office in 2009. The filibusters were part of a broader GOP effort, Democrats say, to stymie Obama's agenda after he won a second term in 2012.
"We need good, strong debate about nominations and everything else," Reid said on the Senate floor earlier this month. "What we don't need is hours and days and weeks of obstruction."
Fed up, Reid and other Democrats implemented the "nuclear option" last fall, declaring that mustering 60 votes to overcome a filibuster would no longer be necessary for certain executive branch and judicial nominees. Instead, those nominees would be confirmed if they received a simple majority of 51 votes, a much easier threshold in a Senate where the Democratic Caucus has 55 members.
Alexander is just as irked by Reid's efforts to restrict amendments, as he did on the jobless benefits bill. He also said Reid has the math wrong on which party has been doing the most obstructing.
Reid's restriction record
Data compiled by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service and provided by Alexander's office shows Reid has restricted floor amendments 79 times since his ascension to majority leader in 2007 through 2013. That's nearly twice the number compiled by the six previous majority leaders combined.
The same data indicate that Reid has either ended debate or bypassed committees dozens of times and brought legislation directly to the floor — maneuvers Alexander says have curtailed his ability to affect important policy on health care, school choice and other issues.
"It's not about process," the Tennessee senator said. "It's about issues."
GOP treads same path
Independent observers say Alexander has a valid point in criticizing some Democratic tactics. But they also say Republicans have contributed to the current standoff through constant filibusters and attempts to attach politically charged amendments to unrelated bills.
And they say past GOP majority leaders traveled the same path Reid is taking.
Under Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas in the 1990s, the GOP began making liberal use of a parliamentary device that Reid uses to limit floor amendments. And it was Republicans under Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist in 2005 who first seriously discussed using the nuclear option to prevent Democrats from blocking George W. Bush's nominees.
Though he said Republicans were justified in considering that move, Alexander personally opposed it.
Experts say the accusatory back-and-forth that plays out on the Senate floor these days reflects a deeper truth — neither side trusts the other.
"I don't know of a time since World War II where it's been more contentious," said former Senate historian Richard Baker.
Alexander has never been known as a partisan bomb-thrower, despite his recent stint as the No. 3 GOP leader in the Senate. Baker calls Alexander an "institutionalist (who) has thought very carefully and conscientiously over the years about the Senate."
But Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the nonpartisan American Enterprise Institute, said Alexander's recent performance has been disappointing. He said that's particularly true of his support for GOP leader Mitch McConnell's "unprecedented use of tools of mass obstruction" to gum up Senate business.
Alexander, for example, voted against moving forward with the unemployment benefits bill he wanted to amend.
"Lamar's been a hero of mine for years, but I tell you, I am down on him right now," Ornstein said. "He's been at least as much a part of the problem as a part of the solution."