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Specter Calls on Majority Leader to Keep Senate in Session to Deal with Oil and Gas Prices
Decries Reid’s Use of Arcane Senate Procedure to Derail Legislation
Tuesday, July 29, 2008 -
U.S. Senator Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) spoke on the Senate floor Monday night regarding the use of the Senate procedure called “filling the tree” to derail progress on important pending legislation this session.
Filling the tree is a process whereby the Majority Leaders use their power to offer a sufficient number of amendments to “fill the tree” so that no other Senator can offer an amendment. Senator Reid has employed the practice 15 times this Congress on legislation, including the oil speculators bill currently pending, the Medicare bill, FAA reauthorization and climate change.
“We have plenty of time to deal with these issues if we allow Senators to offer amendments and if we then proceed to consider them,” Senator Specter said on the floor. “I call upon the majority leader to keep the Senate in session providing we take up the issues of oil prices and gasoline prices and providing we do not engage in the same circular, dilatory finger-pointing practices which have characterized the Senate for months now during the time when Senator Reid has offered 15 instances where the so-called tree has been filled and no other amendment can be offered by any Senator.”
Senator Specter continued: “I am not anxious to come back in August, but I am prepared to do so, and I think it would be in the national and public interest to do so if we tackle the issue. The August session ought to be for oil and gas prices, and that would be worth our while.”
On February 15, 2007 Senator Specter introduced S. Res. 83, calling for a revision of the Senate rules to prohibit “filling the tree.”
Full text of the Senator’s floor statement follows:
Mr. President, I thank the senior Senator from Illinois. I had sought recognition to try to speak about an hour ago, 5 past 6, but we were in a quorum call. If there is somebody watching on C-SPAN, they probably don't understand what is going on on the Senate floor. But a quorum call can't be taken off if one Senator objects. As I said earlier, the majority leader objected until he got to the floor and took off the quorum call.
Then I made a number of comments in a discussion with the Senator from Oklahoma.
For those who do not know the Senate procedures, I could only ask him a question, could not make any statements. Although the Senator from Alabama engaged in a considerable amount of comments without questions, the majority leader objected when I sought recognition. So I now want to address a few basic points in what is going on.
The institutions of the Senate are very important to this country. That is because this body has been called the world's greatest deliberative body, because under the precedents, any Senator can offer any amendment to any bill at any time, virtually. There are some limitations, but that is the valid generalization. If you combine that with unlimited debate, this forum has been a place where ideas can be expressed, the public can hear them, the public can understand them, and momentous matters of public policy are decided by the Senate because of our ability to bring up these issues. Nobody can limit it. That has made America great. The Senate is a very important institution.
Now, regrettably, in the past 15 years--and it has been the fault of both Democrats and Republicans; and I have not hesitated, as the record shows, to criticize the Republican caucus. I did so in some detail during the judicial battles during the Clinton administration, where I thought the Republican caucus was wrong in denying confirmation. I have voted in an independent way and have disagreed with Presidents of my own party and the majority of my own party. In noting what has happened on this procedure of filling the tree--that is an arcane expression, but let me take a moment to explain it.
When a bill is filed, called up by the majority leader, the majority leader then has what is called primacy of recognition. If two Senators seek recognition, and the majority leader is one of them, he has the right to recognition first. So he then offers an amendment to the pending bill. Then he offers another amendment in the second degree. I won't go on to detail the kinds of amendments, but the consequence is that no other Senator can offer any amendment. That is called filling the tree. Then, when the majority leader has done that, he moves for cloture. That is to cut off debate. Senator Reid did not invent this process. It had been used very sparingly until 1993, only 15 years ago. In one Congress, for example, the 101st Congress, 1989 to 1990, the Democratic majority leader, George Mitchell, did not use it at all. Then, in the session from 1993 to 1994, Senator Mitchell used it nine times. Then it got to be in vogue. Senator Lott used it nine times in the session from 1999 to 2000. Senator Frist then used it nine times in 2005 and 2006. Senator Reid has now used it 15 times, and it has had the consequence of precluding Senators from offering amendments.
Let me be very specific. The global warming bill came to the floor on June 2 of this year. I had a whole series of amendments I wanted to offer, and came to the floor and talked about: No. 1, emission caps; No. 2, cost containment safety valve; No. 3, the energy-intensive manufacturing competitiveness amendment; and No. 4, the steel process gas emissions amendment.
But what happened? Senator Reid filled the tree on June 4. I could not offer those amendments. Then, on June 6, he moved for cloture to cut off debate. Cloture was defeated 48 to 36. Then the bill was taken down.
A similar thing happened on the FAA bill. It was called up on April 28--a very important bill because it was going to change air control practices using a satellite system to provide for greater safety. There were important amendments I wanted to offer on scheduling. We have overscheduling at the Philadelphia International Airport. People wait a long time for takeoffs and circle a long time on landings. I could not offer that amendment. There were also significant problems on flight patterns, and I could not offer that amendment.
Now, regrettably, this has gone on on many bills for a very long time.
Then, we have the oil speculators bill. It is important the Congress deal with the escalating prices of oil and gasoline at the pump--heating oil. What has happened on the bill? There was a motion to proceed filed on July 17. On July 23, the tree was filled. Then the motion for cloture on the bill was defeated on July 25.
So here we have no action. The only action is a lot of finger pointing. Senator Reid points at the Republicans, and the Republicans point back. Senator Reid says the Republicans killed the bill because they would not invoke cloture, and Republicans say that was caused by Senator Reid's filling the tree and not allowing us to offer amendments.
Well, I am sorry Senator Reid is not on the floor at the moment. But he made a speech about explaining this to our constituents, and I do agree with him on that one point that it is going to be very hard to explain to our constituents why we have done what we have done. We had a vote on LIHEAP, low-income heat and energy assistance, last week. Senator Reid called that bill to the floor to put Senators such as Arlen Specter on the spot. I have been a proponent of funding for that second to none. As chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee having jurisdiction over that subject, enormous sums were added. But had that bill gone forward, the oil speculators bill would have been displaced.
Now, it is very important in the long run that oil prices be dealt with for those people who need LIHEAP, who need heat in the winter in Pennsylvania and Maine and other States, or air-conditioning in the summer. It is going to be a job to explain it; there is no doubt about that. But I am willing to undertake that risk, that difficulty. I have town meetings all over Pennsylvania every year and will have a chance to talk to my constituents about it, and I am prepared to deal with it.
Senator Reid said on the issue of suffering, if we are in in August, the Republicans will suffer more than the Democrats because there are more Republicans who are up for election. Well, I submit that the question of suffering by the American people is more important than whether there is more suffering by Democrats or Republicans in the Senate.
I do believe it would be salutary and appropriate for the Congress to stay in session during the month of August providing we deal with real issues and providing we do not have weeks, as the Senate has had, where there are only one or two votes. We have plenty of time to deal with these issues if we allow Senators to offer amendments and if we then proceed to consider them, so that I call upon the majority leader to keep the Senate in session providing we take up the issues of oil prices and gasoline prices and providing we do not engage in the same circular, dilatory finger-pointing practices which have characterized the Senate for months now during the time when Senator Reid has offered 15 instances where the so-called tree has been filled and no other amendment can be offered by any Senator.
When I quoted Senator Reid about his denouncing the filling of the tree, his comment was that I had supported Senator Frist, the majority leader, and it is not true. I did not support him on that. I think Senator Reid was exactly right when he objected to the procedure to foreclose amendments by saying that the filling of the tree ``is a very bad practice.'' These are Senator Reid's words:
It runs against the basic nature of the Senate. The hallmark of the Senate is free speech and open debate.
Senator Christopher Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut, had this to say on the subject on May 11 of 2006:
..... to basically lock out any amendments that might be offered to this proposal runs contrary to the very essence of this body. ..... when the amendment tree has been entirely filled, then obviously we are dealing with a process that ought not to be. ..... the Senate ought to be a place where we can offer amendments, have healthy debate over a reasonable time, and then come to closure on the subject matter.
This is not a new position I have taken. More than 18 months ago, on February 15, 2007, I introduced S. Res. 63 to change the standing rules of the Senate to bar the majority leader from filling the tree.
So, in conclusion, I do believe the rules of the Senate and the way we have functioned to allow any Senator the opportunity, virtually, to offer any amendment at any time on any bill is a very precious procedure in our democracy and it is worth fighting for. It is worth fighting for even if it is going to be misunderstood on the litany of items which Senator Reid talks about. Illustratively, the people who have LIHEAP will be better served in the long run by a Senate where Senators can offer amendments and deal with the problems of the high price of oil in the long run by amendments such as the one Senator Kohl and I have offered to bring OPEC under the U.S. antitrust laws.
When we talk about where the suffering exists, we ought to focus a little more on the American people who don't have the money to go on vacation in August with the high gasoline prices or with the high prices generally to take vacations at all. I am not anxious to come back in August, but I am prepared to do so, and I think it would be in the national and public interest to do so if we tackle the issue. The August session ought to be for oil and gas prices, and that would be worth our while.
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