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House of Cards-Style Drama Last Night in the U.S. Senate

Last night, IAVA’s Legislative Team was busy monitoring the surprisingly busy and heated activities on the U.S. Senate floor late into the night as the new Republican majority sought to quickly begin moving legislation and honoring their commitment to allow more debate and amendments on bills under their leadership. As the new Majority Leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) mentioned repeatedly, the Senate took more votes yesterday on amendments for one bill than it did on all bills last year under the former Majority Leader, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

Yesterday’s vote-o-rama was on a bill related to approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. However, the reason IAVA’s Legislative Team was monitoring the debate so closely was because Senate leadership had indicated that they may take up the Clay Hunt SAV Act – IAVA’s and the post-9/11 veterans community’s top priority in 2014 and into early 2015 – immediately after the Senate finished its work on the Keystone bill. And with the Senate working so late into the night to get through debate, amendments, and votes on Keystone, there was a very real possibility that they could have wrapped up work on the bill and squeezed in a quick unanimous vote on the SAV Act to finish off the night on a positive, bipartisan note. Therefore, the Legislative Team stayed up, active, and engaged. Semper paratas, as the Coast Guard says.

While the SAV Act vote did not go down, some heated and surprising political drama did. After noting the absence of a quorum (i.e. majority of senators present) necessary to proceed with amendment votes and pass the bill, the Presiding Officer of the Senate suddenly and unexpectedly ordered the Sergeant-at-Arms – the only law enforcement officer who can arrest sitting members of Congress – to compel attendance of absent senators.

If you’ve seen season two of House of Cards, you’ll remember this maneuver also being employed in a dramatic scene in which Vice President Underwood takes over as Presiding Officer of the Senate and orders the Sergeant-at-Arms to compel attendance for a contentious vote. We then see arrested fictitious senators being carried into the Senate chamber against their will, which can technically happen – and has in the past!

For example, during a controversial and tense vote on the Senate floor in 1988, then-Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) ordered the Sergeant-at-Arms to compel attendance of absent Republican senators for a quorum call. As one US News article reported on the matter, “One such Republican, Sen. Robert Packwood, R-Ore., was carried feet first into the chamber after, acting off a tip from a cleaning lady, the sergeant discovered that he was hiding in his office and his office door frame had to be physically removed to retrieve him.”

This level of high drama did not repeat itself again in the Senate last night, since the seriousness of the order to compel attendance itself convinced enough absent senators to voluntarily return to the chamber and participate in votes. However, when they returned Democrats did refuse to consent to proceed with votes on any further amendments, including their own amendments. As a result, Majority Leader McConnell made the decision to shelve five out of six Democratic amendments to the bill and proceed without their own amendments on which they were refusing to cooperate.

Shortly after midnight, leaders on both sides of the aisle agreed to wrap up business for the night – and the week – and return to pick up where they left off on Monday afternoon. Therefore, we now know that the final vote on the Clay Hunt SAV Act will not take place until Monday night at the earliest, after finale votes on the Keystone bill and related amendments are complete.

If Monday sees any more of the Senate drama we witnessed last night, hopefully Frank Underwood will be in town to storm into the Senate chamber and get everyone in line again so that we can finally pass this the Clay Hunt SAV Act into law.

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