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Keeping regular order from becoming unmanageable

By Nick Juliano | 01/14/2015 07:24 AM EST

The Senate’s return to regular order is getting off to a relatively smooth start, but keeping the process from becoming too unruly will require continued cooperation between the two women running the debate over legislation to approve the Keystone XL pipeline — and an agreement from their colleagues that they won’t try to insert too many unrelated issues into the discussion.

The Senate’s return to regular order is getting off to a relatively smooth start, but keeping the process from becoming too unruly will require continued cooperation between the two women running the debate over legislation to approve the Keystone XL pipeline — and an agreement from their colleagues that they won’t try to insert too many unrelated issues into the discussion.

Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), the chairwoman and ranking member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, yesterday afternoon announced an agreement to advance the KXL approval bill and set up a series of votes for next Tuesday on Democratic amendments that would restrict exports of oil transported through the pipeline and require it to be made from U.S. steel, along with a bipartisan energy efficiency amendment not directly related to the pipeline (, Jan. 13).

The agreement cleared the way for senators to leave for their respective party retreats today and prevented them from being stuck in the Capitol for a midnight procedural vote last night. But it does not cover all of the unresolved issues around the pipeline debate, such as whether it will force votes on issues such as climate science or crude oil exports (see related story).

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Cantwell said from the floor yesterday afternoon that the initial agreement had been negotiated across the aisle and that she supported the process.

"Working out back and forth on these agreements I think is a good way to proceed," Cantwell said. "So I hope people will be willing to come here on Friday and dialogue about these or other amendments."

Murkowski said not every amendment would likely get a vote and that she would continue to talk with amendment sponsors such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who on Monday announced plans to offer an amendment to lift the nation’s crude export ban (, Jan. 12).

"I’m going to talk to Sen. Cruz, as I’m going to be talking to all the others who are going to be proffering their amendments," Murkowski told reporters yesterday. "Because again you may be introducing an amendment to make a message, make a point, have an opportunity for discussion, for debate, and then choose to withhold. We do that all the time."

The KXL approval bill, , represents an early test for new Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s pledge to return the upper chamber to regular order and allow for the types of freewheeling amendment debates that his predecessor, Democratic Leader Harry Reid (Nev.), routinely shut down when he was in charge of the chamber. However, that pledge has caused some confusion in a chamber where many members had never lived through regular order before.

McConnell (R-Ky.) yesterday clarified that he supported an "open" amendment process but not an "open-ended" one, drawing some criticism from Democrats who worried he would shut out their proposals. Those concerns apparently were assuaged, at least for now, by the time Murkowski and Cantwell announced their agreement about 4 p.m. yesterday.

In the energy realm, especially, the return to regular order is welcome — if unfamiliar to many of the Senate’s current members. More than half of the current crop of senators were elected after enactment of the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act, the last time a comprehensive energy bill became law. Just 34 current senators were around for passage of the more sweeping Energy Policy Act of 2005, although a dozen senators elected since then were serving in the House at the time.

This week’s debate over the KXL bill — which the White House says is destined for a presidential veto — is seen as something of an opening act for eventual consideration of a new comprehensive energy bill that could balance various proposals around alternative and traditional energy, as well as regulatory reform (, Jan. 9).

Asked her definition of "regular order," Murkowski stressed the importance of the committee process and the role of the chairman and ranking member as managers when bills come to the floor. She noted that some uncontroversial amendments could become combined into a managers’ package that would be adopted as a single package to save time on the floor and pointed to a variety of procedural tools available to force members to take a vote on an issue. Examples include seeking a vote to table — or set aside — an amendment rather than voting to actually attach it to a bill, or setting up a "side-by-side" pair of amendments that would pair a Democrat’s and Republican’s proposal on the same issue.

"The process allows you to kind of work through these," Murkowski said. "But it is a situation where not every amendment that I have offered I want to take up."