02/20/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Senate Democrats Threaten To Shut Republicans Out

Barely two weeks into President Clinton's first term, Republicans took to the Senate floor to bring up the issue of allowing gays to serve in the military.

"No issue in the last two years has gotten more attention from the people who pay my salary, the working men and women of Texas, than this issue," said then-Sen. Phil Gramm on the Senate floor in February 1993.

Republicans held up debate on family and medical leave to raise the issue. "I am determined that we are going to have a vote," said Gramm, a Texas Republican, "And if it means that nothing ever passes the Senate until we have an opportunity to cast that vote, until every Member of the Senate has a chance to say yes or nay, then I am willing to do that."

The move led to a political debacle for Clinton. This time around, Democrats are determined to not to let it happen again.

Senate Democrats are willing to use their expanded majority to shut Republicans out of the amendment process if the GOP uses it to score political points by introducing unrelated amendments, a top Senate Democratic leadership aide told the Huffington Post.

"We can do this the responsible way and get some things done -- or we can do it the hard way," he said.

Democratic leadership views the debate over the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act as a "threshold moment." So far, Senate Republicans have introduced two amendments to it, both of them related to the bill.

"If [the Ledbetter debate] goes well, we'll have an open amendment process, but only if Republicans want to legislate," said the aide, emphasizing, "Once again, we've got 59 votes."

Sixty votes are needed to cut off debate and move to final passage of a bill.

House Democrats have already gone that direction. Last session, House Republicans made devastating use of the legislative maneuver known as a motion to recommit, using it to bring up offshore drilling and other issues Democrats didn't want to vote on. This session, Democrats changed the rule so that a motion to recommit must be related to the bill it's amending.

The move by Senate Democrats has been a long time coming. A year ago, Senate Republicans earned the ire of Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) for proposing to amend a bill aimed at the foreclosure crisis with something having to do with tort reform and another amendment cutting taxes.

"The Republican 'housing plan' consists of tired programs form a dusty Bush-Cheney playbook. Tort reform and Bush tax policy - neither have anything to do with housing," said Reid on the Senate floor.

With only 51 senators in his caucus, there was little Reid could do. But he added a warning.

"Our razor-thin majority has allowed Republicans to block legislation with little effort. They should enjoy it while they can. The American people see what's going on, and our majority will soon grow," Reid said.