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McConnell scores early victories

By Alexander Bolton

(The Hill) The first month of the new Senate Republican majority didn’t turn out exactly how Mitch McConnell wanted. But it came pretty close.

The Senate closed its first month under Republican rule on Friday by passing legislation approving the Keystone XL pipeline — moving a step closer to sending the controversial bill to President Obama’s desk.

It’s the most significant accomplishment McConnell’s had so far as majority leader, but is far from the only one.

The Senate under McConnell has already held twice as many roll call votes on amendments as the chamber held in all of 2014.

By Monday, it will have approved three bills: the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act, Keystone and a veterans’ suicide prevention bill.

The GOP leader is even earning some praise from Democrats.

“But for one terrible Thursday night, he’s done a good job,” Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) told reporters before the final vote on Keystone.

McConnell claimed a measure of victory on Thursday.

“This is a happy day on several counts. We just finished our having our 38th roll call vote on an amendment in the Senate which is more than twice as many as we had in all of 2014,” he said after the vote on the Keystone bill, which he touted as “an extraordinarily important jobs bill for our country.”

McConnell vowed to change the way the Senate conducts its business if he became majority leader. He’s followed through with his word.

The Senate is working longer hours and taking more votes.

It worked until after 9 p.m. on Tuesday, after midnight the Thursday before and after 10 p.m. the prior Tuesday.

To be sure, there have been complaints about McConnell.

A constant critic is Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) spokesman Adam Jentleson.

“The first month of the Republican Senate is littered with Sen. McConnell’s broken pledges … McConnell has already bypassed committees, shut down debate on the Senate floor and failed to hold a single Friday vote,” he tweeted this week, referring to Democratic amendments the Republicans voted to table.

Reid’s spokesman also needled McConnell over the time it took to move Keystone through the chamber, noting that 27 House-passed bills are already sitting on the leader’s desk.

McConnell tried to speed the process along by holding a vote on Monday to end debate but Democrats blocked it, arguing that they had not received enough time to offer amendments.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) complained that while McConnell allowed votes on Democratic amendments, he kept the threshold for approval at 60 votes, ensuring their failure.

“Virtually everything in this process of a multiplicity of votes, they’ve all fallen apart with an exception of two,” she said. “The lesson is you’ve got to find a way to get to agreement on numbers of votes and do it in a way that doesn’t develop the kind of hardness between the two parties.

“Everything goes to 60 votes so again the supermajority is the only [thing] that moves the body,” she added.

The chamber adopted only four amendments to the Keystone bill, including one Democratic proposal, a sense-of-the-Senate resolution stating that climate change is real and not a hoax.

But the events of the past month played out largely along the lines of the script McConnell, the Senate majority leader from Kentucky, laid out a year ago when he unveiled his argument for why voters should let Republicans run the Senate after the 2014 midterm elections.

Speaking to his colleagues on the floor a year ago, McConnell promised he would allow votes on more amendments and have the Senate working longer hours to break what he called “gridlock and dysfunction.”

McConnell’s policy of opening up the floor to dozens of votes on amendments has a political downside for Republicans. Potentially vulnerable incumbents from swing states have been forced to vote on proposals that Democrats will likely use as political ammo in next year’s campaign.

He has already seen Republican colleagues defect on issues ranging from the regulation of petroleum coke, an industrial byproduct, to the question of whether climate change is real and caused by human activity.

Vulnerable incumbents have also toed the party line in a way that could come back to haunt them.

Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) all voted to table an amendment to ensure oil transported through the Keystone pipeline is used to reduce the nation’s dependence on Middle Eastern oil. They also voted to set aside an amendment requiring the use of iron and steel manufactured in the United States to build the pipeline.

These lawmakers, however, say they’re not worried about the political consequences.

“That’s why we’re here,” Ayotte said when asked about tough votes. “We came here to take votes. The last four years I’ve been here we’ve not debated legislation the way I think we should.

“I came here to get things done for the country and to be able to debate and vote on issues that are important to my constituents,” she said. “I understand that part of that is taking votes that are offered by the other side, whether they’re intended to be political votes or not.”

Johnson said Republicans made good on their promises to open up the process and respect the rights of the minority party.

“I think it’s been a healing process,” said Johnson. “Democrat senators appreciate the fact that they’re able to offer amendments.”

He said he wasn’t worried about the impact on his 2016 reelection race.

“One promise I made in Wisconsin is I never vote my reelection mind, I intend to keep that promise,” he said.

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