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Senate's Returning Democrats Unanimously Favor Filibuster Reform Senate's Returning Democrats Unanimously Favor Filibuster Reform

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Congress / senate

Senate's Returning Democrats Unanimously Favor Filibuster Reform

All except Dodd sign a letter urging Majority Leader Harry Reid to change the rules.

Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri is one of a number of Democrats pushing for Senate rules changes that would limit the minority's ability to block action.(Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)

photo of Dan  Friedman
December 22, 2010

All Democratic senators returning next year have signed a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., urging him to consider action to change long-sacrosanct filibuster rules.

The letter, delivered this week, expresses general frustration with what Democrats consider unprecedented obstruction and asks Reid to take steps to end those abuses. While it does not urge a specific solution, Democrats said it demonstrates increased backing in the majority for a proposal, championed by Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and others, to weaken the minority’s ability to tie the Senate calendar into parliamentary knots.

Among the chief revisions that Democrats say will likely be offered: Senators could not initiate a filibuster of a bill before it reaches the floor unless they first muster 40 votes for it, and they would have to remain on the floor to sustain it. That is a change from current rules, which require the majority leader to file a cloture motion to overcome an anonymous objection to a motion to proceed, and then wait 30 hours for a vote on it.

 

“There need to be changes to the rules to allow filibusters to be conducted by people who actually want to block legislation instead of people being able to quietly say ‘I object’ and go home,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.

This year, McCaskill lined up backing from more than two-thirds of senators for elimination of secret holds, which allow a senator to block action on a bill or nomination anonymously. She said that Democrats will also push plans to force senators who place holds to do it publicly.

After weeks of Democratic Caucus discussions during which newer members pushed various plans to limit filibusters, reformers are increasingly confident that they can defy predictions by Republicans and many pundits that rules changes will not happen in the near term. A Democratic leadership aide said that Democrats expect to “do something on timing” next month, specifically by seeking to prevent 30-hour waiting periods on motions to proceed.

The fact that every returning Democrat signed the letter circulated by Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Mark Warner, D-Va., urging changes underscores growing determination on the part of the Senate’s majority to raise the bars for filibusters.

Adding to the momentum for change, say proponents, is a push by Udall to seek a simple majority vote on changing Senate rules at the start of the session, rather than a two-thirds majority, that is gaining steam. Such a move could come at the start of next Congress, shortly after the Senate returns on January 5th.

Although Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa., has long backed filibuster reform, Senate rules changes have primarily been pushed this year by newer members, including Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Colo.; Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.; Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.; Udall; and McCaskill.

Senior caucus members, notably including Reid and retiring Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., have been skeptical. Dodd warned against altering Senate rules in his farewell speech this month. He is the only Senate Democrat who did not sign the letter to Reid, aides said.

Republicans have cited such divisions to argue that Democrats will not be able to force any rules changes. Democrats hope the letter strengthens Reid’s hand in talks with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

McConnell spokesman Don Stewart asserted that Democrats would regret any alteration of rules when they find themselves in the minority, although he said that a limitation on cloture time used for a motion to proceed would be a relatively insignificant move.

Filibuster reform backers say they have now won broad caucus support for a compromise proposal that avoids more contentious ideas.

“Hopefully that gives [Reid] the juice he needs to negotiate reasonable changes so we can stop the abuses next year,” McCaskill said.

Merkley said on Tuesday it was too early to tell what proposal Democrats will ultimately push because talks, including conversations “between the Democrats and Republican leadership” continue.

“The next step is that when we come back in January, to actually be able to hold that type of conversation on the floor of the Senate,” Merkley said.

Democrats have also discussed changing how Senate committee and subcommittee chairman are picked. Some newer members would like to limit the ability of the full committee chairman to also serve a subcommittee chairs.

Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., who heads a working group of Democrats weighing caucus rule changes, said such a move cannot occur unless the Republicans agree, since it would require altering full Senate rules. “I don’t think we’re really talking about that right now,” he said.

Pryor said he is eyeing less-dramatic changes, including limiting how many subcommittees one member can head and adjusting the process under which Democratic senators can win seats on multiple “A” committees ( such as Appropriations and Finance).

“We’ll make some changes,” he said.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and McCaskill have also said that they expect Reid to agree to a request to elect committee chairmen by secret ballot, scrapping the current practice of electing chairmen by affirmation unless a member objects. Many members believe the change would make chairmen more accountable to rank-and-file members, Brown said.

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