Status of Minibus Amendments

Last week, the Senate began debate on the House-passed defense appropriations bill (HR 6157) by unanimous consent.

Once on the bill, the Chairman of the Appropriations Committee, Richard Shelby, R-Ala., offered an amendment (Amdt. 3695; legislative text located on page S5685) to the House-passed measure that included the Senate’s version of the defense bill, as well as the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education appropriations bill. Shelby's amendment was an amendment in the nature of a substitute (ANS) and thus triggered the amendment tree depicted in Chart 4 (p. 89) of Riddick's Senate Procedure.


Chart 4: Amendment to Strike and Insert (Substitute for Bill)

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., next offered an amendment (Amdt. 3699; legislative text on p. S5685) at branch C (perfecting first degree). McConnell did so to establish a veto point. McConnell's amendment serves as a so-called blocker amendment. Senators seeking to offer any other amendment directly to the underlying Shelby ANS would need unanimous consent to get pending (which would presumably be denied if McConnell or Shelby wanted to block the amendment). 

Offering a blocker amendment is a less aggressive way to control the Senate floor than completely filling the amendment tree in that it typically leaves a few branches open for possible amendment. Those branches are rarely connected directly to underlying Senate bill and are thus less helpful for impacting policy outcomes. For example, in Chart 4, the blocker amendment leaves branches E and F (on the left side of the amendment tree) open. Branch D (second degree to C on the right side) is also left open. These branches do not present the same challenges to proponents of the bill because the impact of the amendments there would be minimal if the they prevailed. Bill proponents could move to table C in order to prevent a vote on D on the right side of the tree. Additionally, adoption of E and F on the left side of the tree would be negated once the Senate adopts the Shelby ANS.

This reflects well the Senate’s current procedural posture. The process is depicted step-by-step below. Each branch on the amendment tree is color coded according to its status.

Blue = underlying legislation to which senators offer amendments

Yellow = pending amendments

Red = branches eliminated by pending (yellow) amendments

Green = open branches

White/No Color = branches not yet available

Step 1

Senate begins debate on House-passed defense appropriations bill.

Step 2

Shelby offers Senate version of the next minibus to HR 6157.

After the Shelby ANS is pending, it is considered part of the underlying bill for purposes of amendment. Amendments can then be offered at branches A, C, and E.

Step 3

McConnell offered Amendment 3699 as a blocker amendment to better preserve order on the Senate floor. Consequently, the amendment will likely remain pending throughout Senate consideration of HR 6157. A clue is also provided by the amendment's relatively insignificant impact. If adopted, it would increase an operations and maintenance account for the Department of Defense by $1 million. Such a small increase could easily be secured in committee by the Appropriations Chairman (Shelby) or the Majority Leader (McConnell).

Once pending, the McConnell amendment prevents senators from offering amendments at branches A and B on the right side of the tree. The only branches on the tree at which senators may offer amendments are D on the right side and E on the left side.

Step 4

Once the blocker amendment is in place, the Senate then switches from regular order (i.e. following its amendment trees) to processing amendments by unanimous consent. For example, McConnell propounded the following unanimous consent request regarding HR 6157 after offering his amendment. It made pending two competing first degree perfecting amendments on branch C. Menendez-Murkowski Amdt. 3705 and Fischer-Baldwin Amdt. 3706 (legislative text on p. S5689). The unanimous consent agreement also blocks senators from offering second-degree amendments to both amendments on their branch D.

"I ask unanimous consent that the following amendments be called up en bloc and reported by number: Menendez-Murkowski No. 3705 and Fischer-Baldwin No. 3706. I further ask consent that at 5:30 p.m. on Monday, August 20, the Senate vote in  relation to the amendments in the order listed and that there be no second-degree amendments in order to the amendments prior to the votes."

The Senate's current procedural posture is below.