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STOPPING DIRTY HARRY

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By KIMBERLEY A. STRASSEL
Jan. 8, 2015 7:04 p.m. ET
Wall Street Journal
Were anyone wondering how Sen. Harry Reid intended to manage life in the minority, it took one day of the 114th Congress to get the answer: Exactly as he did in the majority. Republicans would be wise to understand what he’s up to.

The Senate these past four years has been a supermassive black hole—a place where everything good went to die. The chamber was designed as a forum for debate, amendments, deliberation and coalition-building. Mr. Reid instead wielded it as a means of party protection—using its many procedural tools to block every bill, and to shield his members and the Obama White House from tough issues.

And while he isn’t officially running the Senate anymore, he’s still running on a Senate dysfunction agenda. New Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has vowed to restore the place to “regular order,” though he recently got a taste of how hard that might prove. Mr. Reid this week again accused the former Republican minority of “gratuitous obstruction and wanton filibustering,” and vowed such tactics would not “be a hallmark of a Democratic minority.” He then proceeded to unleash all the obstruction and filibustering in Christendom to slow Mr. McConnell ’s first priority: authorization of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Tuesday morning—the first day of session—assistant Democratic leader Sen. Dick Durbin took to the floor to formally object to the Senate Energy Committee even holding a hearing on the pipeline, despite Republicans having charitably arranged for even opponents of the project to testify. Having tanked that hearing, Mr. Reid’s office turned around and publicly complained Mr. McConnell wasn’t sticking to his promise to hold a hearing and report the bill out of committee. This was doubly rich, coming from a former Senate leader who barely acknowledged committees existed.

Democrats have meanwhile indicated they intend to filibuster the Keystone bill at every turn. They’ll demand 30 hours of debate here, 30 hours there. And nearly every Democratic office is already busy writing dozens of amendments to the bill—a few designed to embarrass Republicans, though plenty aimed at wasting time. “Republicans have promised an open amendment process, and that is exactly what they’re going to get,” crowed Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, who voted on only about 20 amendments over the past 20 months. That was all Mr. Reid allowed.

The obvious explanation for all this stonewalling is that the vast majority of a liberal Democratic caucus doesn’t agree with GOP priorities and doesn’t want to see Republican legislation pass. Then again, most of the bills Republicans are starting with have bipartisan support and are destined for the president’s desk. So why all the Democratic rigmarole?

The reality is that Mr. Reid has a compelling interest in ordering his members to keep the Senate looking like a circus. He spent the past four years telling the American public that nothing got done under him because Republicans were obstructionist and because the Senate was “broken.” The “broken” point he even used as an excuse to blow up the filibuster for presidential nominations.

If Mr. McConnell is successful in using regular order (including debate, amendments, conference work, the filibuster) to begin methodically moving bills to Mr. Obama’s desk, that blows up the Reid story line. It exposes Democrats as the real obstructionists of the past years, even as it proves the GOP is able to get things done. Mr. Reid can’t let that happen.

The minority leader also has a more personal interest in keeping the Senate balled up: his own credibility within his party. Mr. Reid spent the past years assuring his members his Senate shutdown was protecting them from tough votes—a strategy that backfired phenomenally in the recent midterm election. Vulnerable Senate Democrats had nothing positive to show for their time in the chamber, and were instead tagged with the label of Obama lackeys.

Mr. McConnell is betting an honest committee process and a freewheeling amendment system will induce some Democrats to buy-in to legislation—allowing them to take credit back home for getting something done and for crafting bills in ways that benefit their states. Mr. Reid, who already came under fire from some of his members for his lockdown approach, would rather those members not realize there is a better way. Could be they might just want a different, more productive, leader going forward.

These Reid motivations, however, only underline how wise Mr. McConnell was to promise to return to regular order, and how important it is that Senate Republicans soldier on with it. The process will be frustrating, slow and at times risky. But done right, this will be more than just an opportunity for Republicans to outline a vision. It will be their opportunity to show that the Senate as an institution can work—at least under GOP care. That, too, will be crucial if they want to keep it in 2016.

Write to kim@wsj.com.

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