Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid raised eyebrows a week ago when, in a moment of frustration on the Senate floor, he acknowledged that he was mistaken to quash his junior members’ effort early last year to rein in abuse of the filibuster.
Many observers assumed that Reid — a fierce protector of Senate traditions — was either bluffing or exasperated and would quickly reverse course. But one of the leaders of the failed filibuster reform effort notes that Reid has publicly acknowledged his error multiple times in recent weeks, and believes Reid will stand by his efforts in January, when he and his colleagues have an opportunity to change the rules again.
“We got one of the five passed, and the other four all still make sense — the motion to proceed, the protocol for amendments, the talking filibuster and the limitation of hours on nominations,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), in an interview at his Capitol office.
Merkley pointed to several instances in which Reid has copped to being on the wrong side of the filibuster reform issue.
“Boy, if there were ever a time when Tom Udall and Jeff Merkley were prophetic, it is tonight,” Reid said in floor remarks on May 10. “These two young, fine senators said it was time to change the rules in the Senate. We did not. They were right. The rest of us were wrong, or most of us anyway. What a shame.”
For those who doubt Reid has truly had a change of heart, that wasn’t an isolated incident.
“I am almost embarrassed to be saying this in front of the presiding officer,” Reid said, as Merkley presided over the Senate on Feb. 29. “I say that because at the beginning of the year the presiding officer, along with the junior senator from New Mexico, thought maybe we should change how this place operates. A number of us, in good conscience, believed the few changes we had made would be sufficient to establish a better working situation. It hasn’t been better. In fact, I am sorry to say, it is worse.”
In an earlier moment of frustration last October, Reid actually used a parliamentary tool to establish a new precedent on the Senate floor — an unusual move that required him to take the sort of steps Merkley and others want to use to limit the filibuster. On the floor that night, Reid alluded to his error, too.
“I see on the Senate floor the junior Senator from the State of Oregon,” Reid said, alluding to Merkley. “He and a number of other Senators worked very hard at the beginning of this Congress to kind of change what was going on around here, to make things move more quickly, to make things move more fairly. There was a lot of talk about we are going to try to move things along, we are not going to hold up motions to proceed, and all that. But that hasn’t worked too well.”
Reid’s admission is a bit of a strategic gamble from the narrow perspective of his own party’s power. Control of the Senate is at stake in November, and if his party finds itself in the minority, Republicans can use his comments to box him in to ceding the power of the minority. But many top Congress scholars think the Senate is fundamentally broken and needs to be fixed no matter who’s in power.
That’s not how Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell sees it, though. He doesn’t think the rules need to be changed — at least not yet.
“When both sides have a chance to debate and amend, legislation tends to move,” he said on the floor Tuesday. “But when the majority refuses any ideas they didn’t come up with, things slow down. Let’s hope it sticks.”
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.