Two senators, two views on pace of chamber

A decade into his U.S. Senate career, Johnny Isakson considers January’s debut of the Republican majority “a remarkable and stark contrast” for its efficiency.

After one month in the institution, David Perdue calls it “mind boggling” to take a whole three weeks to approve the Keystone XL pipeline bill, which still must be merged with a U.S. House version before facing a presidential veto threat.

The Georgia Republicans’ divergent perspectives reflect a drawn-out process approved by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., that Democrats have elongated further by — for the first time in a long time — freely proposing and voting on amendments.

So far this year, there have been 42 amendment votes, as compared with 15 in all of 2014, according to a tally by McConnell’s office.

Then-Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., choked off amendments to keep the agenda narrowly focused on Democratic priorities and protect his vulnerable senators from tough votes. It didn’t work, as Republicans won a landslide in the fall.

McConnell arrived with the promise of opening up the process. Democrats have taken advantage, forcing Republicans into difficult votes on requiring all the pipeline's oil to be sold in the U.S. and for it to be built only with American steel. Along with many other Democratic initiatives, they failed.

“We’re grateful we had the opportunity to offer and vote on amendments,” U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said at a news conference as the process was nearing its end. “But those amendments don’t do any good for the middle class if Republicans vote them down. It’s like playing a ballgame and not scoring any baskets. What’s the point?”

The point is that they will be resurrected in campaign season.

Still, Perdue did not consider the American-made votes to be difficult.

“I don’t believe government should be in there dictating those types of details for free enterprise,” he said.

And though the rookie acknowledged he was “frustrated” with the pace, he said he was pleased with the “civility” shown so far and a perceived improvement from the partisanship he witnessed from the outside. But Perdue is eager to move a little faster.

“I’m hoping to bring a sense of urgency to the process,” he said. “As an outsider, I can be a critic of it and I’ll continue to do that. We’ve got some huge problems.”

Isakson said the process brought out “messaging amendments on both sides,” but it was a vast improvement over the Reid “rope-a-dope.”

“You ought to vote; you ought to argue; you ought to debate; you ought to demand amendments,” Isakson said.

With all deliberate speed, the Senate will take up an Isakson-pushed bill Monday evening that is designed to improve mental health care for veterans in order to combat suicides. The bill is expected to pass without drama.

“I’m very proud that the House passed it the second (full) week of January. We passed it out of committee the third (full) week of January, and it’s on the floor of the United States Senate the second day of February,” said Isakson, the new chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee. “That’s good progress.”

The feel-good veterans bill will be followed by an attack on President Barack Obama’s executive actions on immigration, attached to a spending bill for the Department of Homeland Security. Senate Republicans are hardly of one mind on what to do with the House-passed bill, much less how to lure moderate Democrats to reach the 60-vote threshold.

And this one has a deadline on it: DHS funding expires Feb. 27. How long can the amendment spree last?

A smorgasbord of subcommittees

Between them, the Senate and the House have more than 150 subcommittees. That’s a lot of gavels, and a few Georgians learned this week they’ll be wielding one or two.

In the House, a duo of Scotts — Austin, Republican of Tifton; and David, Democrat of Atlanta — will lead the Agriculture Subcommittee on Commodity Exchanges, Energy and Credit.

In the Senate, Republican Perdue will take on a pair of subcommittees within a month of being sworn in. He will be chairman of the Foreign Relations Subcommittee on State Department and USAID Management, International Operations and Bilateral International Development; and the Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation, Forestry and Natural Resources.

Even Isakson – dubbed "Johnny Two Chairs" by a Georgia website for heading the Veterans Affairs and Ethics committees — found the time to take on a subcommittee. Isakson will run the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Subcommittee on Employee and Workplace Safety.

Vote of the week

The Senate voted 62-36 Thursday to approve the Keystone XL pipeline.

Yes: U.S. Sens. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga.; and David Perdue, R-Ga.