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Arizona Senator Jon Kyl explains how Harry Reid changed precedent in the Senate to squash minority rights

Saturday, October 8, 2011

HH: Yesterday, an extraordinary sequence of events on the Senate floor. To explain what happened and their significance, we are joined by the Senator from Arizona, GOP minority whip, Jon Kyl. Senator Kyl, it’s great to have you back. Thanks for joining us on what must be a getaway Friday, I hope, for you.

JK: Well, I’m actually back in Arizona already, Hugh, thank you. Because of the holiday on Monday, we get a little bit of time off here. But it was quite an interesting affair last night.

HH: Can you explain to people the significance, or lack thereof? I thought it was very important what happened, but you’ve been there 18 years. You know these rules as well as anyone. What happened, and how important?

JK: Well, first of all, put it in the framework of minority rights in the Senate. In the House of Representatives, the majority controls everything, and the minority has no rights whatsoever. The Senate was intended to be a different kind of body where things took a little bit longer to be sure, because minority have rights. They can slow things down, they can require that a 60 vote majority is required to pass some legislation. And there’s just a lot more in the ability to offer amendments and get votes, and that sort of thing. Over the years, there have been attempts to conform the Senate more to the way the House of Representatives operates, so that whoever is in the majority gets to run everything. And that runs counter to the filibuster rules, and things of that sort, that have always distinguished the Senate, and again, cooled things off, because it does take a little bit longer to get things done. That’s very frustrating for whoever is in the majority. So there have been times when the Republicans have been in the majority, and we’ve thought about streamlining things, and cooler heads prevailed, and it didn’t happen. Now, during Harry Reid’s time, a couple of practices have crept in that have really begun to be problematic. Through a parliamentary procedure, he has the ability to call up a bill, preclude any amendments to the bill, file cloture, and if he can get 60 Senators to agree, you then have a final vote on the bill, all without any…I mean, there’s debate time, but there’s no time for any kind of amendments. And that practice has gone on, now, for several years, more and more and more. The only way to get a vote on a proposed amendment, then, was a procedure that was used very sparingly until the last couple of years, when this other problem crept up, called a motion to suspend the rules. And after cloture’s been invoked, that motion to suspend the rules has to be used sparingly, or the Parliamentarian will rule it dilatory. But you can have five or six motions, and you’re okay. The problem is, anytime you’re suspending the rules, if you stop and think about that for a minute, it’s a big deal, so it takes 67 votes. So mostly, the motion to suspend the rules was a way to get a vote on something, to get everybody on the record, but without any realistic hope of getting it passed. Why would you do that? Because you don’t have any other chance to get an amendment up. So Republicans had, because Harry Reid on the China currency bill filed cloture, and cloture was invoked, he had not allowed any amendments whatsoever. The minority leader, Mitch McConnell, had offered to vote on the President’s so-called jobs package, this latest stimulus deal. And of course, the President said how come the Congress won’t vote on this, so Mitch McConnell, being the accommodating fellow he is, said well okay, we Republicans agree, we’ll have a vote on it, obviously embarrassing the Democrats, because not all the Democrats are going to vote for it, either. And of course, it would fail. Well, that upset the Democrats, and so as a result, Harry Reid basically said we are not going to vote on these motions to suspend the rules. And a parliamentary inquiry was made, and the Parliamentarian, of course, said well no, you can have motions to suspend the rules. Harry Reid appealed the ruling of the chair, and kept is party in line sufficiently, to prevail. It only took 51 votes, as a result of which, there is a new precedent in the Senate now. And the precedent is that post-cloture motions to suspend the rules, even one, would not be permitted.

HH: Now Senator Kyl, that’s the narrowest reading you can give to this. I speculated today that when Republicans return to the majority, they may well, in their first, at least, two years, exercise a more expansive view of the precedent sent yesterday, which is that procedural disagreements can be referred to the chair for a majority vote on a point of order, having to do with legislation as well as judicial nominations. Isn’t that at least on the field of play?

JK: It’s…because this happened late at night, without any warning, it’s not clear yet what the ramifications of this are, and how it’ll work in the future. I even have a sense that there could be, that the majority might reconsider what it did, understanding that the show could be on the other foot after the next election. And what they’ve just done is to eliminate, basically, the last vestige of an opportunity for a minority party to get a vote on something. Basically, now, we would have no ability to get a vote, and they might want to reconsider whether that’s really a good idea, and figure out a way to resubmit that to the Senate, and perhaps walk it back a little bit. Now I’m just guessing. I don’t know for sure.

HH: Now my question, though, as a Republican, I would be disappointed if the majority representing my party didn’t say that china’s broken. We can glue it back together again, but you’re going to live with that for at least a single Congress, because otherwise, don’t we end up looking like saps if they get to break the rules? I mean, they introduced the filibuster in the judicial appellate process for the first time, and we haven’t done that. And you know all these things better than anyone does. So don’t we end up looking like saps?

JK: (laughing) I hate to say it all depends, but in the Senate, so much is done…the Senate basically doesn’t have rules. And so everything is done by unanimous consent. Well, stop and think about it. You’ve got a body of 100 people. That requires a lot of cooperation, even among political enemies. So there’s a great deal of comity that’s required for the Senate to operate at all. And I just wouldn’t want to be put in the position of saying you bet, we will retaliate in kind, and we will do this and that. We will for sure handle this in a way that maximizes our rights, whether we are in the minority or the majority. But having happened late last night, and I haven’t had an opportunity to talk to Mitch McConnell about how exactly we will respond and so on, it’s too early to say exactly how we will treat this, especially if we’re in the majority.

HH: My concern, also, that I wrote up at today, is that here you are on the Gang of 12, the supercommittee, vitally important that this get done the right way. We can’t have more Defense cuts. And all of a sudden, the Senate is, you know, in a procedural war of words, and tempers are flaring. Can you put that Humpty-Dumpty back together again?

JK: No, you’re absolutely right. It makes it…I mean, all of these things make is much more difficult for us to get together, because again, with six and six, six R’s, six D’s, in order to get a majority, obviously somebody has to compromise. And this is, it is really important that this committee succeed in finding at a minimum $1.5 trillion dollars that we can reduce our deficit by. So all of these things make it much more difficult. It just shows you how tough things have gotten in Washington these days.

HH: Senator Kyl, today at the Citadel, Mitt Romney, one of the serious contenders for the Republican presidential nomination, said this about the United States Navy. I wanted to get your reaction to that in the context of pending Defense sequestrations.

MR: Among these actions will be an effort to restore America’s national defense. I will reverse the hollowing of our Navy, and announce an initiative to increase the shipbuilding rate from nine per year to 15 ships per year (applause).

HH: Now Senator Kyl, I know you haven’t endorsed Romney or Perry. I’m not looking for an endorsement. I’m just curious as a member of the supercommittee, we’re staring at sequestration of Defense, which would not only not allow any Republican to rebuild the Navy, it would, I assume, sink the shipbuilding we’ve got underway.

JK: Yeah, look at it in two pieces. First of all, I’m glad to hear what Governor Romney just said. And it’s not just the Navy that’s getting hollowed out. It’s the Air Force, it’s the Army, the Marine Corps will have its capabilities diminished. It’s our nuclear deterrent. All across the board, the cuts that are already required as a part of the budget deal are going to put extraordinary strain on our military. It’s going to have to cut between $400 and $490 billion dollars over the course of the next ten years. That’s going to be very difficult. Everybody agrees that if you then had to sequester another $600 billion on top of that, it would be unthinkable. And the only reason I voted for the bill that does all this, is because I believe that it would be so unthinkable that in fact, we wouldn’t do it. In other words, they wanted something that would be so severe, that it would an action-forcing mechanism. I think the reality is they overreached, and made something so bad that Congress and the President, in fact, would never implement it. And I would lead the charge to avoid its implementation.

HH: So the supercommittee could actually “fail”…

JK: We could change it.

HH: Yeah.

JK: …the so-called supercommittee could change it. Or if we were unsuccessful, or the Congress didn’t adopt what we wanted to do, we could immediately seek legislation to overturn that part of the law. I would lead that effort, I can tell you, because there’s no way we could stand to do sequestration of $600 more billion dollars on top of the $400 billion plus already for the military.

HH: Senator Jon Kyl, thanks again for joining us and explaining very carefully what happened yesterday. And we look forward to getting more explanations down the road.

End of interview.

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