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Still Just A Bill: Why Being Senate Bill 1 Doesn't Guarantee Success

Legislation to approve the Keystone XL pipeline is the latest Senate Bill 1. President Obama has vowed to veto it.
Sue Ogrocki

On his first day in his new job, freshly minted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., designated the Keystone XL pipeline bill as Senate Bill 1 --the first legislation introduced under his leadership.

That signaled more than just McConnell's own support for the bill. The prestige of being S-1 also conveys a sense of the priority and urgency Senate Republicans in general attach to the project, which would permit the pipeline to cross the U.S.-Canada border and carry crude oil from the tar sands of Alberta to the Gulf Coast.

But being No. 1 does not guarantee that a bill will become law. The history of past S-1 designees is rather mixed, neither a ticket to enactment nor a kiss of death.

At a glance, the Keystone XL bill would seem an excellent prospect to be among the winners. The House has approved Keystone before and will do so again Friday. Moreover, the latest Senate iteration has enough co-sponsors to break a filibuster threat.

Yet the travails of the new S-1 began on Day One. Shortly after the swearing-in ceremonies, Senate Democrats blocked a hearing on S-1 and the White House issued a formal veto threat. Rumors of a compromise in the works proved overly optimistic.

If there is a veto, the fate of the latest S-1 will likely rest with a handful of Democrats who did not co-sponsor the bill but might still be open to argument. If enough of them could be persuaded to buck the president, the GOP could seek a two-thirds override vote in the House as well.

On Friday, the Nebraska Supreme Court cleared the way for the pipeline's route. It's also possible that obstacles to the project in the federal regulatory process could be cleared and the White House could change its view.

But if you had to bet right now, based on the cards on the table, you'd have to say the president's veto looked like a trump.

Looking back at recent iterations of S-1, it's clear the Senate's priorities fare far better when they coincide with the president's. But even that degree of consensus is no guarantee of success.

The Fate Of Previous S-1s

The last bill to be S-1, when the Democrats still controlled the Senate, was the Immigration Reform that Works for America's Future Act. Sponsored by 16 Democrats in January 2013, it served as an opening bid in a negotiation with Senate Republicans. Eventually, a bipartisan group reached a compromise and enough votes were found to forestall a filibuster. But that bill died in the House, which did not take it up and did not pass a comprehensive immigration bill of its own in the last Congress.

Two years earlier, in 2011, then-Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., put forward the American Competitiveness Act. It was a collection of measures such as broadband access to bolster business-related activities, encourage U.S. exports and eliminate tax incentives for American businesses to relocate jobs in foreign countries. It represented a refocusing on jobs and the economy after two bruising years of battle over Obamacare. Parts of this S-1 made it into other legislation, but the original package was consigned to the Finance Committee. In the House, the new Republican majority gave its HR-1 designation to a stopgap spending bill.

In 2009, with President Obama taking the oath of office for this first time and Democrats holding nearly three-fifths of the seats in the Senate and House, Democrats decided their first order of business was to stimulate the economy. With millions being laid off, S-1 and HR-1 were formally called the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. That name would subsequently appear on countless billboards next to road projects, but nearly everyone called it simply "the stimulus." It contained some tax cuts for wage earners and other provisions but was generally regarded as a public works jobs bill. Reactions to it generally divided along party lines, and controversy over its effectiveness continued until it was overtaken by the storm over the health care bill that would become Obamacare.

In 2007, his first year as Senate Majority Leader, Reid observed his party's return to majority status with the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007. A joint effort with the Democrats running the House, this attack on the "revolving door" between government and lobbying activities was signed into law by President George W. Bush in the summer of that year. The new law extended the time during which senior federal executives are banned from lobbying their former agencies and made similar changes for members of Congress and their staffs.

In 2005, right after George W. Bush had been re-elected, his stated top priority for Congress was a revision of Social Security to provide for some private investment of retirement funds. But the president left the details of such a proposal up to Congress, and Republican leaders were hesitant to tackle the issue until more consensus had been reached. Both the S-1 and HR-1 designations were reserved for a bill that did not emerge. The Senate eventually used S-1 for a commemorative bill honoring former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

In 2003, the new Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., had the strong support of the White House, especially presidential adviser Karl Rove. Frist, a physician, designated as S-1 the Prescription Drug and Medicare Improvement Act, which would establish the pharmaceutical benefits Medicare recipients still receive today under Part D. The bill was supported by House leadership, which also made it HR-1, but fiercely opposed by some House conservatives. The vote on the bill in the House that June had to be held open for hours while GOP leaders found the final vote to pass it 216-215.

In 2001, the first year George W. Bush was president, the S-1 designation went to the Better Education for Students and Teachers Act (BEST), a longtime project of Sen. Jim Jeffords, R-Vt. The Bush White House had some ideas of its own about education, better captured in the House bill HR-1, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Relations with Jeffords deteriorated, and in the summer the Vermonter bolted from the GOP to become an independent. That tipped what had been a 50-50 Senate in favor of the Democrats, who took over running the floor and committee process in that chamber for the next 18 months.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.
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