On the Senate floor Monday afternoon, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell railed against his counterpart, Harry Reid, and a “cohort of short-sighted Senate sophomores,” for proposing to modify the Senate’s filibuster rules on the first day of the 113th Congress to limit the extent to which the minority can gum up legislative business.
“Does [Reid] believe that on the day he finds himself in the minority once again that he should no longer be heard?” McConnell asked, “Or does he think that Democrats will remain in the majority from now until the end of time?”
In a Monday interview, one of the supposedly short-sighted sophomores said, contra McConnell, the reforms Democrats are proposing could in theory go much farther, but are being designed with future power shifts in mind.
“The point I would make is that I’ve said from the outset is that a test of a good proposal is whether or not you could live with serving under it in the minority,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR). “That’s why the talking filibuster is the right way to go. McConnell has broken the social contract. His team, under his leadership, uses it constantly and silently, out of public sight. Really the proposal I put forward restores the basic elements that existed in the past, and I’m quite happy to live under that structure as a minority. … [That] has been part of every conversation I’ve had with colleagues. … If we’re in the minority and we’re blocking something, we should be accountable to the public.”
Changes to the Senate rules are rare, typically minor, and usually require 67 votes be implemented. But Democrats can avail themselves of a complicated, arcane procedure in January and amend the rules as they choose with an easier 50-plus-one majority.
The changes Democrats are considering wouldn’t eliminate the filibuster, and would thus preserve the Senate minority’s enormous power over legislative affairs. But the new rules, if adopted, would make it harder — possibly significantly harder — for the minority to successfully block legislation than it currently is.
So it’s no surprise that GOP leaders are characterizing the plan as a fatal assault on the Senate minority’s rights.
“If a bare majority can now proceed to any bill it chooses, and once on that bill, the majority leader, all by himself, can shut out all amendments that aren’t to his liking, then those who elected us to advocate for their views will have lost their voice in the legislative process,” McConnell said.
McConnell warned that Reid and fellow Democrats might come to regret the power move in future Congresses.
“How would you feel if two years from now I have your job and my members are saying let’s get rid of the filibuster altogether with 51 votes?” McConnell asked Reid during floor debate.
“I think that would be wrong,” Reid responded. “We’re not trying to get rid of the filibuster.”
The Democrats’ filibuster reform proposals aren’t finalized, and it’s unclear still whether they’d be advanced as a single package or a piecemeal series of rules changes.
But two ideas have wide support in the Democratic caucus. The first, more cursory change, would make what’s known as the “motion to proceed” non-debatable. That means the minority could no longer block debate on legislation, while holding out for guarantees on amendment votes or legislative changes to the underlying bill.
The other would recreate a status quo ante, where filibustering senators would be required to hold the floor and draw public attention to their obstruction efforts. “If they want a filibuster, stand and talk about it,” Reid said.
Dems also want to end the minority’s power to prevent the convening of a conference committee with the House, to resolve differences between two similar pieces of legislation.
But under nearly all permutations of these reforms, the supermajority requirement would survive.
That would still leave the GOP minority plenty of opportunities to obstruct — and Republicans are threatening to take them. But Reid, who opposed Merkley’s efforts in 2010, has come around, and conceded that his junior caucus members had it right all along. The only question now is whether Reid can round up 51 votes for establishing a precedent that could be used against his own party in future Congresses.
“The Republican leader thinks things are going well here. He’s in a distinct minority because things aren’t going well around here,” Reid said. “Lyndon Johnson: one cloture. Reid: 386. That says it all.”
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.