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Accountability of Elected Officials
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Chaplains in the U.S. Congress
House Ethics Process
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Lame Duck Congress: Attendance and Voting
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Party Animals: the Donkey and the Elephant
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Amendment Tree in the Senate
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Conference Committees: In Decline
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Capitol Corner

Amendment Tree in the Senate

What does it mean to “fill the amendment tree” in the Senate?

Amendment Tree in the Senate by Ilona Nickels
The “amendment tree” is the term used to describe the diagram which keeps track of the amending process in the Senate. The diagram shows the possibilities available for offering amendments: the bill is considered the trunk of the tree, and the branches growing out from the trunk of the tree illustrate what amendments can be offered. When amendments have been offered to fill up all the branches and twigs on the diagram, the tree is considered “full.”

The Majority Leader of the Senate gets favored for recognition over any other Senator when it comes to offering amendments on the Senate floor. Although it is a very controversial move, Majority Leaders have from time to time used that priority recognition to offer one amendment after another, filling up all the available branches on the “amendment tree.” When they use that tactic, no more amendments are in order. The current Majority Leader, Harry Reid (D-NV) did this on the Defense Authorization bill. It had the effect of shutting out all Senators from offering any amendments to the Defense Authorization bill, on any topic, once the bill came up for consideration.

Filling up the amendment tree and shutting out other Senators’ opportunities to amend a bill is controversial. It has often produced resentment – and it led several Senators yesterday to vote against bringing the bill to the floor because they were being denied the opportunity to shape the defense bill on the floor through offering amendments and getting votes on those amendments once the bill was before them.

Majority Leaders have the procedural right to take advantage of their preferential recognition to fill up the amendment tree; however it is not without political risk and sometimes back-fires, as it did yesterday. Senator Reid ended up four votes short of the number he needed to bring the bill to the floor.

One of the votes he lost was that of Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), a supporter of repealing Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell, who nonetheless voted against bringing the defense authorization bill to the floor with the Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell repeal language attached. She cited the “filling the amendment tree” tactic as her reason for voting against bringing up the bill in her statement on the Senate floor yesterday (Sept. 21, 2010):

“What concerns me even more is the practice of filling up the Amendment Tree to prevent Republican amendments. And if that is done on this bill, it will be the 40th time. Now, Mr. President, I find myself on the horns of a dilemma. I support the provisions in this bill. I debated for them . . . I think it’s the right thing to do, I think it’s only fair. I think we should welcome the service of these individuals who are willing and capable of serving their country. But I cannot vote to proceed to this bill under a situation that is going to shut down debate and preclude Republican amendments. That too is not fair.”

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