Washington (CNN) – The Senate pushed back a final vote on a China currency bill until next week after senators descended into an angry and emotional debate over the rights of the minority Republicans to offer amendments to it and other bills.
The dispute Thursday night revealed long simmering divisions between the two parties over the increasing use of delaying tactics – such as filibusters that need 60 votes to overcome - which Republicans use to ensure their rights but that frustrate the ability of the majority Democrats to pass legislation.
Senators crowded onto the floor and listened with rapt attention to the rare public venting of frustration built up after months of bruising battles over government funding, the debt ceiling, and stalled judicial nominations.
"The minority is out of business," Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell declared.
"Let's get back to legislating as we did before the mantra around here was "defeat Obama," shot back Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid.
In the case of the China bill, which otherwise has broad bipartisan support, Republicans were frustrated because Democrats blocked them from offering several amendments, including one on the merits of the president's controversial jobs bill, which Democrats opposed debating at this time. In turn, Democrats were upset because Republicans refused to give up the jobs amendment and therefore prevented debate on any other amendments.
The result of the standoff was several days of floor time on the China bill with very little actual debate.
Then, late Thursday, Democrats surprised Republicans by jamming through a rule change – something that only requires 51 votes – to prevent senators in some situations from moving to suspend the rules and offer amendments. Republicans wanted to do that on the China bill in a last-ditch effort to get votes on their amendments.
Democrats said their precedent setting rule change was needed because they feared some Republicans would bottle up passage of the China bill through an endless number of motions to suspend the rules, something Republicans denied.
Sen. Bob Corker, a reform minded Republican from Tennessee, triggered the impassioned debate when he openly challenged Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to explain why the Senate appeared so dysfunctional.
"I think members on both sides of the aisle feel like this institution has degraded into a place that is no longer a place where any deliberation at all," he declared.
Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the top political messenger for the Democrats acknowledged Republicans are frustrated because they often can't offer amendments.
"We are frustrated because the 60 vote rule, which was always used here, is now used routinely," he said.
Reid defended the rule change saying it was aimed at expediting debate. He said an open-ended amendment process is preferable but in recent times it had become "a road to nowhere."
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell fired back saying the Senate was designed by its founders to be "freewheeling body and everyone is better off when we operate that way."
"The country is better off to have at least one place where there is extended debate where you have to reach a super majority to do things," he said.
In the end, Senators agreed to take a cooling off period over the extended Columbus Day weekend and vote on the China bill and the president's jobs bill when they return next week.
Reid announced he hoped soon to convene a private caucus of all senators where they could further discuss and work out their differences.
"It was a pouring out of feelings from both sides," said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-West Virginia, a longtime member of the Senate. "Sometimes you have to do stuff like this - have to have a catharsis of some sort. Just let it rip. The beauty of it was it was all on the Senate floor and carried all over the country. So people saw us at our worst and I saw us at our potential best."