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By Chuch Raasch, St. Louis Post-Dispatch (TNS)

WASHINGTON — The Senate debated on Wednesday 18 amendments to the Keystone XL Pipeline Bill, more than it considered on all bills debated in all of 2014.

It’s a new day in the Senate under Republican control of “the world’s most deliberative body.”

Many of the Keystone amendments were offered by Democrats and have virtually no chance of passing. Republicans say their return to “regular order” will be far more tolerant to such amendments than what was allowed under former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), and that Wednesday proved their point.

Republicans, with Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo) taking a lead, long complained that Reid stifled legislation to protect his fellow Democrats from unpopular votes and President Barack Obama from having to take stands on tough issues.

But Reid’s deputy leader, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), said Wednesday’s debate was possible only because, unlike the Republicans when they were in the minority last year, his party has decided to be the “constructive minority” and not gum up Senate procedural works with constant threats of filibusters and other parliamentary delaying tactics.

No matter who gets the blame or credit, the early result is more wide-ranging debate on high-profile issues such as Keystone. Some of the amendments offered have been aimed more at making political points or getting fellow senators on record than on getting changes into law, but Blunt said that was not all bad.

Senators, he said, have a right to bring forth legislation they think is important and to try to persuade other senators to take a position on it. Until the past six years, he said, the Senate traditionally was “the place where national issues had an opportunity to be discussed.”

Blunt will spearhead legislation, after the Keystone XL pipeline, that illustrates how divisions will continue to play out. Republicans will push a vote on House-passed legislation to cut off funding of Obama’s controversial executive order easing deportation on millions of people who have illegally entered the country.

Blunt and other Republicans think Obama’s actions represent both bad policy and executive overreach. But his side needs six Democrats to go along to allow a final vote, and the math is on the Democrats’ side. On Tuesday, 41 Democrats — including Durbin and Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) —  signed a letter essentially saying they would oppose the House-passed bill, meaning that as it stands now Blunt is short of the magic 60 to proceed. But that reality won’t stop debate on the issue.

Blunt said Republicans would push it, anyway, both to try to persuade enough Democrats to come over to the GOP side, and to get senators on the record.

Including himself, less than two years before the 2016 election, when his Missouri term is up.

“People deserve to know,” said Blunt.

Durbin, who was just re-elected, is pushing legislation to consolidate into one independent office all federal food-safety programs, which he said are now under the purview of 30 offices in 15 scattered federal agencies. He’s tried several times to get this legislation passed since 1999, and Republicans now running the Senate are unlikely to go along with legislation establishing another federal agency.

But Durbin said he believed his legislation, which Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) has introduced in the House, would actually save money by trimming overlaps. Durbin said that if his bill got wide debate he may be able to persuade fiscally conservative Republicans to go along.

Durbin and DeLauro used a federal version of the chicken and the egg to illustrate their case for reform. Starting with the chicken, they said, and depending on whether the egg is freshly laid or long processed, as many as 30 federal offices in those 15 agencies — ranging from the Department of Agriculture to the Food and Drug Administration — are part of the regulatory scramble.

“They are stumbling over one another, handing off eggs and broken eggs and fried eggs,” Durbin said.

With the amendment process opened up, Durbin has a better chance of making that case on the Senate floor by offering his bill as an amendment to another.

“Yes, it is a new Senate in terms of amendments,” Durbin said, “but it is working because the Democrats have not stopped the train.”

Photo: 350.org via Flickr

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