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Jobs, Energy, Families, and Disaster Refief Act of 2008 - Motion to Proceed

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC



Mr. SPECTER. Will the Senator from Oklahoma yield to me?

Mr. COBURN. I will.

Mr. SPECTER. I have waited more than an hour to speak while the quorum call was on, and we couldn't get the quorum call taken off.

With all due respect, the real issue, which is on the floor now, is not the amounts of these dollars or the virtue of all of the bills you are blocking, but the real issue is whether----

Mr. REID. Is there a question the Senator has for the Senator from Oklahoma?

Mr. SPECTER. The Senator from Alabama spoke at some length without any objection being offered.

I will pose a question to you, Senator Coburn, since the majority leader wants to find some way to stop me from speaking. He didn't stop Senator Sessions from speaking. My question to you, Senator----

Mr. REID. Is there a question the Senator from Pennsylvania has?

Mr. SPECTER. My question to you, Senator Coburn----

The PRESIDING OFFICER. Will the Senator from Pennsylvania use his microphone.

Senators may yield the floor for a question.

Mr. SPECTER. The question to the Senator from Oklahoma: Isn't the real issue behind the cloture vote an effort to dislodge the pending legislation on the oil speculation bill? Is it the substance of the legislation which you have opposed and blocked, most of which if not all of which I agree with. But isn't the real point as to what the Senator from Nevada is seeking to do here is to find some way to get off the oil speculators bill?

Mr. COBURN. I thank the Senator from Pennsylvania for his question. I think you accurately assessed it. The fact is, this country has an energy crisis. We have chosen not to address American resources for that. We have chosen to do anything but that, and that is why we have seen bill after bill forcing political votes rather than solving the real problem Americans want the Senate to address, which is how do we stop sending $700 billion of our treasure out of this country every year, knowing we are going to be on carbon-based energy for at least the next 20 to 30 years, and how do we use American resources.

You are absolutely right. That is the real question. That is what we should be about. That is why Republicans stood and said the thing the American people are interested in is us addressing the issues that are impacting them directly today, the $2,400 per family, trying to get to work or get to school.

The question the Senator asked is absolutely right. The real question is energy and trying to take us off energy and run out the clock and not deal with this before we go on summer break.

Mr. SPECTER. My next question to the Senator from Oklahoma is, when the Senator from Nevada rejects the traditional standing of Senators to offer an amendment to any bill at any time--until the past 15 years, majority leaders, both Democrats and Republicans, have adopted this filling the tree to preclude amendments, and the Senator from Nevada says there is insufficient time to take up the amendments. Isn't it true that if the Senate and the House stayed in session during the month of August and did not take the recess, we could take up any number of amendments to give Senators the traditional rights, which had been enjoyed until 1993, when both Democratic and Republican majority leaders have stymied the process by this process of filling the tree?

Mr. COBURN. I think the Senator makes a good point. The answer to that is yes. As a matter of fact, we would have been halfway through this bill had cloture not been filed when it was introduced at the same time, as we just saw on the bills this evening. A bill is introduced, cloture is filed at the moment of introduction, as it was with the Advancing America's Priorities or, as I call it, the Grow Government and Spend More of Your Grandkids' Money bill, the point being we could have already accomplished half of what this country needs had we had an open amendment process that was germane to the energy needs of this country.

Mr. SPECTER. My next question to the Senator from Oklahoma is whether Senator Reid was correct when he spoke, on February 28, 2006, as noted in the Congressional Record on the Patriot Act Reauthorization:

I am disappointed that he--

Referring to a Senator who wanted to offer an amendment--

has been denied that opportunity by a procedural maneuver known as ``filling the tree.'' This is a very bad practice. It runs against the basic rule of the Senate. The hallmark of the Senate is free speech and open debate.

Was the Senator from Nevada correct when he decried and criticized this business of filling the tree to preclude the offering of amendments?

Mr. COBURN. I answer the Senator from Pennsylvania by saying yes, he was. No majority leader should fill the tree, Republican or Democrat. It goes against the best traditions of the Senate. It goes against the tradition of full debate and full amendment.

Our energy problems could be solved tomorrow as far as this bill. We could ask a unanimous consent to withdraw the amendments filling the tree. If we had unanimous consent to do that, we could have open amendments with the provision there would only be germane amendments to the energy needs of this country. We could do that, but we have moved from debate about what is in the best interests of this country to what is in the best interests of the next political election. That is what this debate is about. It is not about energy. It is not about what is in the best interests of the next two generations. It is not what is in the best interests of the Nation from a national security standpoint or energy security standpoint. It is about what is best for the next election.

We need to get away from that. Regrettably, Republican leaders have used it but never to the extent of 15 times has it ever--it has not been used 15 times in total until the present leader has exercised it 15 times. He has cut off debate and all amendments.

Mr. SPECTER. Is the Senator from Oklahoma aware that I have stated for the record my reason for opposing cloture on the oil speculators bill was not that I did not agree with the underlying approach of legislation to deal with the high prices of oil and the high prices of gas at the pump, but I voted against cloture on that bill, opposed putting the majority leader in a position to move for final passage because I had amendments I wished to offer.

Was the Senator from Oklahoma aware that I have been pressing to get an amendment, along with Senator Kohl, a bipartisan amendment, to bring OPEC nations under the antitrust laws so they could not meet in a room, lower production, lower supply, and thereby raise the price of oil in the international market?

Mr. COBURN. I was not aware of that.

Mr. SPECTER. Is the Senator from Oklahoma aware that I am the principal author of the legislation to provide for the reporter shield, along with Senator Schumer and Senator Lugar?

Mr. COBURN. I am.

Mr. SPECTER. Is the Senator from Oklahoma aware that if that issue goes through the process of the tree filling and cloture is invoked, that legislation will displace the oil speculators bill?

Mr. COBURN. I am aware of that.

Mr. SPECTER. Is the Senator from Oklahoma aware of the detailed effort I made on the legislation involving global warming coming to the floor several times during the week of June 2, listing a number of amendments which I sought to offer, essentially from the Bingaman-Specter bill, and that I was precluded from offering those amendments because the Senator from Nevada filled the tree?

Mr. COBURN. I was.

Mr. SPECTER. Was the Senator from Oklahoma aware of the fact that I voted against cloture on the global warming bill, notwithstanding the fact that I think that is an issue that has to be addressed and worked for more than a year with Senator Bingaman, producing the Bingaman-Specter bill, but voted against cloture to advance the bill because I and others wanted to offer amendments to the global warming bill?

Mr. COBURN. I am.

Mr. SPECTER. Was the Senator from Oklahoma aware of that when the Senator from Nevada thwarted the proceedings under the FAA bill, that there were key issues to be decided, such as modernizing air control to move to satellite, to provide for greater safety, and the processing of that bill was thwarted because the tree was filled and, again, a motion for cloture was denied because Senators were not given an opportunity to offer amendments?

Mr. COBURN. I was aware of that.

Mr. SPECTER. Was the Senator from Oklahoma aware that I had two important amendments relating to air control over my State, southeastern Pennsylvania, actually over Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, that I had an amendment which dealt with the scheduling, where there were enormous delays on takeoffs and landings because they were overbooked, and that the efforts to change the law on that were thwarted by the procedures adopted by the Senator from Nevada?

Mr. COBURN. I was aware.

Mr. SPECTER. Was the Senator from Oklahoma aware that a number of Senators were on the floor for about an hour today and could not get recognition and had to wait because a quorum call was on and that the Senator from Nevada saw to it that the unanimous consent to take off the quorum was denied?

Mr. COBURN. I was aware of that. I had actually offered unanimous consent to waive the cloture and was denied.

Mr. SPECTER. Is the Senator from Oklahoma aware that there is a determination by this Senator, and I think by more than 40 other Senators on this side of the aisle, to fight these procedural moves come hell or high water, and no matter what legislation the Senator from Nevada offers, if it is legislation similar to the shield bill that I have worked on for a long time, I think it is very necessary, that we are going to rebel against the tyranny of what has been established by the majority leader in following a procedure to fill the tree and then blame Republicans who refuse cloture and exercise finger-pointing backward and forward?

Is the Senator from Oklahoma aware that I and others are determined to do everything we can to stop this procedure, which has undercut the basic purpose of the Senate?

Mr. COBURN. I am. I am very pleased in your effort.

Mr. SPECTER. I thank the Senator from Oklahoma.

Mr. COBURN. I will not take but a moment longer. I think it is fair to allow the majority leader to regain the floor.

The Senate I know and the Senate I studied was not about limiting debate. It was not about having a Rules Committee of one, it was about unlimited debate, germane but unlimited. It was about amendments. It was about using the parliamentary rules we have in a fair and straightforward way to advance what you thought was best for this country.

The majority leader has the toughest position in this body. It is a hard job. There is no question. I defer to his judgment. I am not critical of his judgment. I am sorry for the Senate that we are to the point now where we can only move legislation when it is approved and the amendments are approved by the majority leader and his leadership.

I think that fails the test of our Founders' version of the Senate. I think we will rue the day that we have gone down this path. But I will continue to use every parliamentary maneuver I know to lessen Washington's wasteful spending, to pass good bills and make them better and not to say that just because you do not approve of a unanimous consent request that you do not have something to offer.

The fact is, we have passed 855 bills by unanimous consent. I may have let too many go. But the fact is we negotiated with a lot of people and got a lot of bills through. The frustration factor is part of the Senate. Working together we solve problems, working against each other what we do is we lower the rate of acceptability and confidence in this body to the 9 percent it has today.

My hat is off to HARRY REID for the amount of time he has put in, the amount of effort he puts in it. I would hope he would choose to go a different way, reaching across the aisle, working across the aisle. Everybody's ideas have value. Everybody's input should be offered and there should be real negotiation.

One last comment. This omnibus package of bills had 34 bills in it. There were only three bills that I absolutely opposed, nine bills I never objected to at all. And every other bill in that I made an offer to reach out, offer amendments, offer suggestions. Most of the time it was flatly rejected: We are going to roll over you. You cannot have input.

If that is the way the Senate operates, then we are going to be back here a lot of times in the future. I know, pretty heady times, thinking that we may not have the power to do that. But that power, if it goes away, will not last for very long being in absence. It will be back. The American people get it.

This country is on a crashing course, financially. Fiscally, we cannot handle what is happening to us. Until we start handling the problems now that are going to be the crisis in the future, we will fail the American public.

I yield the floor.


Mr. SPECTER. 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.

I thank the Senator from Illinois for agreeing to this time.

I yield the floor.


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