Late at night, the beam of a massive, Klieg searchlight knifes through the Gotham skyline. For this is no ordinary searchlight, arranged outside Hollywood’s Chinese Theater, sweeping the clouds for a big movie premiere. No, this beacon pitches its incandescence from the rooftop of police headquarters. It projects the foreboding emblem of a black bat into the darkness.
When Commissioner Gordon orders his officers to fire up the Bat-Signal, everyone in Gotham City knows something bad is going down. It’s the Penguin. Joker. The Riddler. There’s mayhem in the streets.
And when Bruce Wayne spies the Bat-Signal, he knows it’s time for Batman to race downtown.
There is no Bat-Signal in the United States Senate. But there is a parliamentary equivalent that alerts astute congressional observers that something strange is going on. Unlike Gotham City, escaped inmates of Arkham Asylum may not be pillaging the Ohio Clock Corridor just off the Senate floor. But anytime the United States Senate unexpectedly conducts not one but two “live” quorum calls late at night and asks the Sergeant at Arms to tell senators they’re needed on the floor -- that’s practically a personal invitation from Commissioner Gordon to gas up the Batmobile.
Late Thursday night, the Senate was stymied on how to plow through a slate of Republican and Democratic amendments to a bill to expedite construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline. This placed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in a bind. In an effort to contrast the new, Republican-led Senate to the one presided over by now-Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, McConnell promised a more open amendment process.
Republicans railed against Reid for two years, complaining he abused his prerogative as majority leader to lock down the Senate and block amendments. Democrats defended the practice, saying all Republicans wanted to do was slow things down with gobs of amendments -- often designed to make vulnerable Democrats look bad.
The Senate whipped through one batch of amendments to the bill Thursday afternoon but later hit an impasse.
So just past 9 p.m., McConnell wheeled out the Senate’s Bat-Signal, asking for what’s called a “live” quorum call.
The Constitution dictates the Senate has a “quorum” to conduct business. But a true quorum is rarely present on the floor. Ironically, the Senate sometimes burns hours at a time, loitering in “fake” quorum calls throughout the day. These quorum calls are simply placeholders. Either there’s no actual floor traffic or no senator wants to speak. Often senators ask for a fake quorum call to buy time and head off the floor to work out an arrangement on amendments or votes.
So a true or “live” quorum call is rare. A live quorum call means the Senate is actually trying to establish a quorum of 51 senators. Or, the majority leader is trying to summon everyone to the floor because he means business.
In the case of the first live quorum call Thursday, McConnell failed to roust enough senators to come to the floor. So he upped the ante. The next vote was a motion to “instruct the Sergeant at Arms to request the presence of senators.” Such a vote is also uncommon. And if that doesn’t work, the leader can even request the Sergeant at Arms to “compel” or even “arrest” senators in an effort to hustle them to the floor to constitute a quorum.
For the record, newly-minted Senate Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin didn’t have to arrest any senators Thursday night. Former Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Oregon, is the most recent senator to hold that ignominious distinction (in addition to other ignominious distinctions) back in 1988. Then-Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd, D-W.V., ordered the sergeant at arms to draw up arrest warrants for all absent Republican senators. U.S. Capitol Police actually stalked senators in the congressional complex and barged into offices. Officers shoved their way through a locked door of Packwood’s office, slightly injuring the senator as he tried to keep them at bay. Police then unceremoniously hauled Packwood to the capitol, dumping him ankles first into the well of the Senate chamber.
It didn’t come to that Thursday night as the Senate established a quorum. Ninety-four senators finally arrived at the Capitol, voting 89-5 in favor of having Larkin ask them (politely) to attend.
McConnell then told his colleagues that the only way to break the gridlock over the 12 pending amendments was to file what’s called “cloture” on each amendment. Filing cloture is an effort to end a filibuster and require a vote. But the cloture process takes days on each amendment. McConnell wasn’t going to incinerate time that way. So he proposed a series of votes later that night on each of the pending amendments. Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., standing in for the convalescing Harry Reid, objected. Durbin said many Democrats weren’t even familiar with the amendments on which they’d be voting. McConnell argued that Democrats were rejecting the opportunity to vote on some of their own proposals.
So McConnell said he had but one option. Rather than taking straight, up-or-down votes on each amendment, he would move to table or “kill” each amendment.
The first amendment in the queue was a plan by Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass. His amendment would subject the Canadian oil derived from the ground and transferred through the Keystone pipeline to a federal excise tax on petroleum.
From the rear of the chamber, Markey loudly and desperately tried to secure recognition to speak.
“Mr. President! Mr. President! Mr. President! Mr. President! Mr. President! Mr. President! Mr. President!” badgered Markey, his voice growing louder each time as he sought the attention of Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., presiding over the body. McConnell then moved to short-circuit Markey’s amendment.
“I ask unanimous consent that I be allowed one minute to speak on (my) amendment before it is voted on.” petitioned Markey.
“I object,” deadpanned McConnell.
Durbin then called for another quorum call. In this case, a “fake” one. In essence, a “timeout” so perhaps he and McConnell could go off to the side and hammer out an agreement.
“Mr. Alexander,” read Senate Clerk John Merlino, starting to alphabetically call the roll of each senator, beginning with Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.
McConnell was having none of Durbin’s slowdown tactics.
“Live quorum,” instructed the majority leader, forcing the second true quorum call of the evening.
Merlino quickly handed off the roll call duties to his fellow Clerk Kathie Alvarez. Alvarez picked up with “Ms. Ayotte, Ms. Baldwin, Mr. Barrasso, Mr. Bennet … .
Alvarez then ripped through nearly all the names on the entire Senate roster in a startling one minute and 25 seconds, the fastest anyone has called the roll in years.
Alvarez didn’t get quite to the end. She accelerated her breakneck pace at “Mr. Warner, Ms. Warren, Mr. Whitehouse, Mr. Wicker,” crescendo-ing with each name. She paused as the din in the chamber grew so loud no one could hear. From the rostrum, Sasse demanded order and told Alvarez to keep reading.
“Mr. Wyden,” Alvarez panted triumphantly, as though completing a sprint at a track meet.
The Senate then voted to table Markey’s amendment. After that was out of the way, next was a plan by Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del.
Carper’s amendment would impose an 8-cent fee on each barrel of oil moved through the pipeline. McConnell moved to table Carper’s plan.
Like Markey, Carper also sought recognition for one minute to discuss his amendment. McConnell objected. And so went the Senate until after midnight, euthanizing a number of Democratic amendments without recording an up-or-down vote on any of them or permitting even the briefest debate.
While frustrated, Democrats were giddy at the late-night theatrics. They accused Republicans of not matching their campaign promises of a more open Senate.
“Sadly it only took three weeks for the Republican Senate to shut down debate,” lamented Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson.
McConnell’s spokesman Don Stewart criticized Democrats for not working with the GOP to have actual votes on the amendments.
So early on in this Congress, there’s little indication of bipartisan cooperation. Perhaps it may help to shine the Bat-Signal from the Capitol Dome on evenings like Thursday in hopes the Caped Crusader could speed to the Senate to resolve things.
Good luck with that. At the rate things are going, even Batman stands a better chance tangling with the Joker and Penguin back in Gotham City when Commissioner Gordon flips on the Bat-Signal from the roof of police headquarters.