In their second straight day of floor debate on potential rules changes, Senate leaders raised the prospect of direct talks that would avert Democrats’ proposal to change Senate rules in January by a simple majority.
Such talks could avert what Republicans are calling the nuclear option of changing filibuster rules without a 67-vote supermajority, and would probably result in more modest reforms than the sweeping changing many liberals eager to undo filibusters hope for. That would track results 2005, when Republicans’ threat to use “the nuclear option” of a majority vote to bar filibusters of judges drew Democratic concessions.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., during a floor debate Tuesday morning said he “would be happy to work with” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., about rules changes. “I’ve made clear what we seek. I await his suggestions,” Reid said.
Reid offered to come to McConnell’s office to negotiate and to participate in public of private talks. Earlier in the exchange, McConnell said he and Reid “ought to be negotiating” rules changes that could win enough GOP support to receive 67 votes.
Leadership aides said no talks are yet underway, but they could easily occur during the frequent conversations Reid and McConnell have.
Reid has adopted a plan promoted by Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., to use the opening a new Congress to argue the Senate is not a “continuing body” and to change the rules with a simple 51 vote majority and a ruling from the presiding officer. Using that formula Reid wants to bar senators from forcing a cloture vote, requiring 60 votes, on motions to proceed to bills. That means preventing filibusters that stop bills from reaching the floor. Once almost nonexistent, that tactic is now commonplace on major legislation.
Reid has also embraced a proposal by Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., to require a group of senators to remain on the Senate floor to maintain a filibuster.
McConnell and Senate Republicans oppose those changes but have focused their objections to Reid’s proposed method of making the changes with a majority vote. McConnell calls that course “breaking the rules to change the rules,” though Democrats noted Tuesday McConnell supported such a course in 2005 during a fight over filibusters of judges. Republicans note changing the rules by a bare majority would allow the party controlling the Senate to change any rules to fit its whim in the future.
Republicans have launched a record number of filibusters under McConnell, but they argue they did so in response to Reid’s frequent use of his power to block votes on amendments through a tactic called filling the amendment tree. This claim is dubious; Republicans filibustered motions to proceed regularly in 2009 though Reid rarely filled the tree that year. But it is gospel for the GOP, and any negotiated solution they agreed to would probably have to curtail the Majority Leader’s power to limit amendments in exchange to baring filibusters blocking bills from reaching the floor.
A negotiated deal, though one with more teeth than a quickly aborted informal agreement Reid and McConnell reach in 2010 that headed off a Democratic rules change push, may be likely. That’s because Reid appears to have what will be a 55-member caucus behind a push to change the rules, and McConnell appears to have no legislative option for blocking Reid. Aware of that disadvantage, McConnell may be inclined to deal. And Reid’s focus on the relatively limited goal of limiting filibusters of motions to proceed suggest he might accept a deal that achieved that end.
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