Senate leaders have reached a deal that will impose new limits on the filibuster to ease the path for majority Democrats to begin floor debate on legislation while maintaining the minority Republicans’ ultimate veto power over final passage.
Senate Democratic leaders presented the outlines of the plan to members during lunch meetings on Thursday. Republican lawmakers were getting briefed, as well.
The emerging deal is narrow in scope and won’t make new laws necessarily easier to enact. But it would allow Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to manage better the Senate’s gridlocked calendar. The pace of business in the Senate has slowed amid a procedural arms race in recent years as Republicans have increasingly forced Democrats to muster a 60-vote majority even to begin debate on a bill. That process, in turn, consumes days of Senate floor time.
Under the accord, Democrats would gain the ability to skip a procedural step, which is called the “motion to proceed,” to begin debate on a bill. In exchange for that power, Reid has agreed to allow the minority the chance to offer at least two amendments to such fast-tracked legislation. (Democrats could offer two amendments, as well.) Republicans have chaffed under a practice in which Reid doesn’t allow them to offer amendments to bills, which they say has left them little alternative than to filibuster.
The chance to offer amendments would be a political win for the Republicans, who hope to force vulnerable incumbent Democrats who are up for reelection in 2014 into taking tough stances on controversial issues. Reid has successfully shielded his most vulnerable members from such votes in the past.
The deal does not include the so-called “talking filibuster” inspired by the film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington that some more liberal senators, led by Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, have pushed.
The deal represents an important détente early in the 113th Congress, as Reid had threatened to rewrite the Senate’s rules to limit the GOP’s filibuster authority with a 51-vote Democratic majority, instead of the usual 67-vote majority needed to change the chamber’s rules. Republicans called that the “nuclear option” and said it would poison the well of the new Congress before it even got started.
A bipartisan group of senators, including Democratic Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan and Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, had worked to craft a compromise to avoid that outcome. The final deal hews closely to the Levin-McCain blueprint, which they presented to lawmakers in late December.
There are other elements of the agreement. If a bipartisan group of at least 8 Democratic and Republican senators, including the majority and minority leader, agree, a bill can move to the floor with greater speed. The provision prevents a single, lone wolf senator from slowing the entire body through filibusters.
The deal also includes a provision for district court nominees that would reduce the debate time after a filibuster was overcome from 30 hours to two. That could help Democrats push through more of Obama’s judicial nominees. Other lower-level executive branch nominees could also see debate sped up. And the process of proceeding to a conference with the House over legislation would be hastened, as well.