WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, on Thursday called on Senate leaders to address the procedural “dysfunction” that she said is “handcuffing the Senate’s ability to respond to the most profound issues” and is severely undermining public trust in Congress.

Voicing some of the frustrations behind her decision to retire, Snowe wrote a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, asking them to “return the Senate to its historic role as the world’s greatest deliberative body.”

Procedure and process always have been key to the functioning of the Senate, Snowe wrote; but she said recent departures from those normal processes are thwarting the body’s ability “to respond to the most profound issues that will dictate the future course of our nation.”

“We have an obligation to the American people to demonstrate that we have the capacity to solve these problems at this transcendent time,” Snowe wrote. “To do less would be a grave disservice to those who have entrusted us with the public good.”

Specifically, Snowe lamented the repeated use of the filibuster — a procedural tool that allows the minority party to block or slow legislation — as well as moves by the majority party to skip the committee system with major bills and prevent floor amendments.

Sarah Binder, a political science professor at George Washington University and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said Snowe put her finger on many of the issues that ail the Senate.

“As probably only Olympia Snowe can do, she is trying to stake out the middle ground,” said Binder, co-author of “Politics or Principle? Filibustering in the United States Senate.”

Regrettably, Binder added, these trends have been in motion for 20 years and already are the new norm. She also questioned whether Snowe’s push for reform will have much effect given her short tenure in the Senate and how long reforms typically take.

“When she first started talking about this in June, my first thought was I wish she had been a player back in the beginning of this Congress, when junior Democrats tried to bring reform to the floor,” Binder said. That effort failed, lacking support.

A member of Congress since 1979, Snowe has been, since announcing her retirement, increasingly vocal about her frustrations with the partisanship in Washington and lack of movement on major issues. At the same time, some have criticized her for continuing to vote with her Republican colleagues on some issues pushed by the Democratic majority.

This week, for instance, Snowe and U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, joined the rest of the GOP senators in blocking a bill to impose new donor disclosure requirements on organizations and individuals that are funneling millions of dollars into political races. On Thursday, the same day when Snowe sent her letter, Reid accused Republicans of playing election-year politics by preventing debate on a bill that would end subsidies for U.S. companies that export jobs.

Republicans, in turn, have accused Reid and the Democrats of abusing the majority party’s procedural tools and pushing flawed legislation to score political points.

All of this partisanship comes against a backdrop of deep concern that lawmakers will wait until after Election Day to deal with major issues.

At the top of that list is an as-yet-elusive bipartisan plan to avoid $1.2 trillion in mandatory budget cuts this January, half of which would be levied on the federal defense budgets. Known as “sequestration,” the cuts were endorsed by both parties last year as a threat to force negotiations this year on reducing the deficit.

Snowe mentioned the looming “fiscal cliff” in her letter to Reid and McConnell.

“What is required is the opportunity to thoughtfully scrutinize the approaches — the pros and cons and benefits and drawbacks — so that we can have a reasoned discussion during the lame duck (session), rather than ending up with policies drafted behind closed doors by a select few that could result in unintended consequences,” she wrote.

Of course, Snowe isn’t the only senator talking about reform.

Reid recently told MSNBC that he would pass filibuster reform if Democrats return next year still in control.

“We can’t go on like this anymore,” Reid said in the interview. “I don’t want to get rid of the filibuster, but I have to tell you, I want to change the rules and make the filibuster meaningful.”

A day later, Reid and McConnell had a lengthy debate on the Senate floor, during which McConnell suggested the problem was with the attitude of the majority leader, not procedure. He also cautioned against switching to a system in which a mere majority is needed rather than the current 60 votes, especially when the political tables may be turned next year.

“Do we want a simple majority of 51 to ramrod the minority on every issue?” McConnell said, according to a transcript provided by his office. “I think it’s worth thinking about over the next few months as the American people decide who is going to be in the majority in the Senate and who is going to be the president of the United States.”

Kevin Miller — 317-6256
[email protected]
Twitter: @KevinMillerDC

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