The S.C. Senate is set to change some of its rules Tuesday in an effort to make it more difficult for a single senator to block legislation.
The move is important because the Senate’s rules have been used to stall passage of important proposals in recent years — delaying ethics reform for years and, more recently, blocking passage of a gas-tax hike to pay to repair the state’s crumbling roads and bridges.
The Senate’s GOP majority is likely to:
▪ Eliminate “minority reports” – a mechanism that senators use to block bills even though they have won approval in committee, said Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield.
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▪ Change its rules so that high-priority proposals – so-called “special order” bills – will be debated earlier in the legislative day.
▪ Make it easier to end filibusters, where senators opposed to a proposal take the podium and try to talk to death bills.
“What we’re trying to do is make the Senate more efficient,” said Massey.
In recent years, the Senate has become a graveyard for major legislative proposals.
Most recently, a proposal to increase the state’s gas tax was stalled for weeks and then transformed – removing the gas-tax increase – before being approved. Ethics-reform proposals also were held up in the Senate until a watered-down version passed at the end of last session.
The changes are expected to be made Tuesday, when senators are scheduled to adopt the rules that will govern the Legislature’s upper chamber during the session that starts in January.
“Everyone would support trying to have an efficient use of the Senate’s time, particularly now that we’ve shortened the session” by three weeks, said Senate Minority Leader Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington. “(However) you have absolutely got to be absolutely sure that you protect the minority voice on issues.”
Setzler added any potential rules changes would not be final until they are adopted Tuesday.
Eliminating the minority report
Critics say the Senate’s rules are used too often to block important proposals.
For instance, a senator who opposes a proposal that passes a Senate committee can place a minority report on it. That essentially kills the bill unless a two-thirds majority of senators agree to debate it.
Eliminating the minority report will “make it more difficult for one or two senators to block things,” Massey said. “It should be significant progress in the efficiency of the body.”
In exchange for eliminating minority reports, the Senate’s rules will be changed to increase the number of objections each senator has to five from three. Those objections allow a senator to block a proposal when it is to the Senate floor.
Having the ability to object to a proposal protects the minority on an issue, Setzler said.
Changing the calendar, cloture
Senators are also set to change their daily calender so that “special order” proposals – contentious bills that require debate – will be considered earlier during the legislative day.
Now, a proposal that has been given “special order” priority status is not heard until the end of the day – hours into the Senate’s daily session, when some senators are eager to quit for the day.
Moving up debate on special-order proposals will speed up the Senate’s work, Massey said. “We are going to get to stuff much quicker.”
Lastly, senators likely will make it easier to end filibusters by invoking cloture, which ends filibusters, and cutting off the addition of time-consuming amendments that often stall proposals. Senators could change the duration of “cloture” to apply for the duration of a bill’s debate, not just for a day.
“It will again allow us to move forward on those things that the body has determined to be a priority,” Massey said.
Some Republicans will not support Leatherman as Senate leader
Some GOP state senators said Monday they will not vote for fellow Republican Hugh Leatherman of Florence as he seeks re-election as president pro tempore of the Senate.
Leatherman, who is not expected to have a challenger for the post, is expected to win re-election as Senate leader – thanks to the support of moderate Republicans and Senate Democrats.
Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, voted against Leatherman in 2014, arguing the Florence Republican already has enough power as chairman of the Senate’s budget-writing Finance Committee. “I have the same concerns about consolidation of power that I had 2 1/2 years ago.”
Massey added he also is concerned that Leatherman has said he would not become lieutenant governor if Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster rises to governor if Gov. Nikki Haley is confirmed as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
State Sens. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, and Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, also said they will not vote for Leatherman.
“I will not be able to support Hugh Leatherman,” Grooms said, saying the Senate leader is not fulfilling the duties of his office when he says he will not become lieutenant governor, a far less powerful post.