WASHINGTON — Senator Bob Dole had just assumed the mantle of Senate majority leader, after the Republican landslide of 1994, when he confronted a problem.
Piles of Republican legislation from Newt Gingrich’s self-styled ‘‘revolutionary’’ House were stacking up in a narrowly divided, more deliberate Senate, and Democrats were threatening to gum up the works with amendments that would stall the bills.
Dole turned to the Senate’s Democratic master of floor procedure, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who taught him a parliamentary trick known to Senate insiders as ‘‘filling the tree,’’ Dole recalled.
The convoluted procedure allows the majority leader to claim all opportunity for offering changes to a bill, effectively preventing any other senator from proposing an amendment intended to slow down legislation or force a politically embarrassing vote.
‘‘I never knew what ‘filling the tree’ was until I tried it, but it turned out to be pretty good,’’ Dole said, ruefully accepting a share of the blame for the parliamentary arms race that has consumed the Senate in recent years. ‘‘I don’t think there’s any credit.’’
The increased use of the tactic, which had previously been rare, is part of the procedural warfare that has reached a zenith over the past two years in the Senate. Republicans threaten to filibuster and propose politically charged amendments, Democrats fill the amendment tree, and Republicans filibuster in retaliation.
The tactic initially meant to speed bills has instead helped slow them down. The Senate — the legislative body that was designed as the saucer to cool the House’s tempestuous teacup — has become a deep freeze, where even once-routine matters have become hopelessly stuck and a supermajority is needed to pass almost anything.
As a result, the first fight of the next Senate, which convenes in January, is not likely to be over a fiscal crisis, immigration, taxes, or any issue that animated the elections of 2012. It will instead probably be over how and whether to change a troubled Senate, members and aides say.
With his majority enhanced and a crop of frustrated young Democrats pushing him hard, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, says he will move on the first day of the 113th Congress to diminish the power of Republicans to obstruct legislation.
‘‘We need to change the way we do business,’’ said Senator Tom Udall, Democrat of New Mexico. ‘‘Right now, we have gridlock. We have delay. We have obstruction, and we don’t have any accountability.’’
The pressure leaves Reid with a weighty decision: whether to ram through a change in the rules with a simple majority that would significantly diminish Republicans’ power to slow or stop legislation.
The changes may sound arcane, but they would have such a profound impact that they are referred to as the ‘‘nuclear option.’’ They would remake a Senate that was long run on compromise and gentlemen’s agreements into something more like the House, where the majority usually rules.
Critics of the idea, who exist in both parties, say such a change would do great damage, causing Washington to bounce from one set of policies to another, depending on which party held power.