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Senate prepares to test drive bipartisanship

By Ted Barrett, CNN Senior Congressional Producer
updated 10:06 AM EDT, Wed March 12, 2014
Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer, left, and Republican Lamar Alexander have privately worked together trying to figure out how to lower the political temperature and restore some of the important traditions of the Senate.
Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer, left, and Republican Lamar Alexander have privately worked together trying to figure out how to lower the political temperature and restore some of the important traditions of the Senate.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Effort led by two senators aims to restore some semblance of deliberation
  • They'll try to get things going on a non-controversial child care bill
  • Senate has been gripped by partisan battles

(CNN) -- The United States Senate's proud slogan -- "world's greatest deliberative body" -- seems out of place in the current atmosphere where distrust and bitterness dominate and persuasion and freewheeling debate seem like relics of a bygone era.

But on Wednesday, senators will take small steps aimed at restoring their "deliberative" functions when they take up a minor, non-confrontational, bipartisan bill providing block grants for child care programs.

What separates this bill from any other in recent memory is that Democratic leaders, who control the floor, won't dictate what amendments get debated and put up for a vote.

They've refused to do that in the past, fearing Republicans would load bills with unrelated "gotcha" amendments designed to punish Democrats politically.

It's the refusal to allow amendments that has infuriated Republicans and led to so many of the GOP filibusters that have clogged the Senate floor in recent years.

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And those filibusters have, in turn, angered Democrats, and contributed to their controversial decision last year to change Senate rules over the objections of Republicans to limit filibusters.

The idea of returning to an open amendment process is the brainchild of a bipartisan duo -- Sen. Chuck Schumer, a Democrat of New York, and Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Republican of Tennessee -- who have privately worked together for weeks trying to figure out how to lower the political temperature and restore some of the important traditions of the Senate.

After all, the Founding Fathers wanted the Senate to be a place where the hot debate of the House cooled like a saucer cools tea.

Schumer, who never shied from the TV lights as he climbed the ranks of leadership, has been noticeably lower key in the last couple of years and has made strides to work across the aisle on a number of tough issues.

Alexander, who has had a varied career in and out of government, recently left the third-ranking post in GOP Senate leadership saying he wanted to do more to bridge differences between the parties.

So on Wednesday, their experiment will be tested -- sort of like falling blindly back into each other's arms. The child care bill will be put on the floor without any of the procedural hurdles that are commonplace now.

It will then be up to the two bill managers, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, and Sen. Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, to work out which amendments will get votes.

If someone tries to force a vote to defund Obamacare or put new sanctions on Iran, (two issues Democratic leaders refuse to consider right now) the effort likely will collapse. If amendments are non-controversial and relevant to the child care bill, it should pass.

During this election year, when tensions between the parties are likely to worsen, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said he wants to put bills on the floor that have been voted out of committee with the support of the Democratic chairman and the ranking Republican.

Bipartisan bills dealing with sentencing reform, energy efficiency, and manufacturing innovation fit that description and could be considered next, a Democratic aide said.

The success of Wednesday's controlled demonstration may determine if the effort continues.

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