Democrats are conferring with Republican senators about cutting a deal that would still change some of the Senate’s filibuster rules but avoid a showdown that would force Democrats to advance significant reforms on a majority-rules basis.
The Republicans in these talks include Sens. John McCain (AZ), Jon Kyl (AZ), Lamar Alexander (TN) and Lindsey Graham (SC), according to Politico. To enhance their leverage, they’re courting Democrats who are skittish about changing the rules of the Senate using the so-called “Constitutional” or “nuclear” option.
“I think this is yet another sign of the bipartisan concern with using the nuclear option to forever revoke the ability of the minority to participate in the legislative process,” a Senate Republican leadership aide told TPM.
The Democrats’ current proposal wouldn’t abolish the filibuster, but it would end the minority’s ability to obstruct Senate business silently, and instead mandate that filibustering senators occupy the floor and speak until the majority caves or the filibuster fails. Changing the rules typically requires 67 votes in the Senate — a threshold that all but guarantees potent minority powers can’t be weakened or repealed.
Senate Democratic leadership aides, who confirm that the discussions are ongoing, put a different spin on them. One aide told TPM that there’s reason to believe a significant number of Republicans will play ball.
“[D]on’t rule it out,” the aide said. “There is far more discontent within the Republican caucus over Senator McConnell’s leadership than has been reported anywhere.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) is determined to weaken the minority party’s power with or without GOP support. He’s indicated that he’ll change the rules with a bare majority if Republicans don’t provide enough support for substantial reforms. His threat is only credible if he can muster the 51 votes to do so. And though it’s not clear he has the votes, the fact that Republicans are engaging the issue suggests that they think he might.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has aggressively opposed the effort, complicating Democrats’ hopes of attracting much Republican support — at least unless the reforms are scaled back.
It’s not clear what concession Democrats are willing to make to get a deal, and the magnitude of those concessions would depend on whether or not Reid truly has 51 votes to change the rules on his own. But a separate Senate Democratic aide, whose boss is committed to substantially weakening the filibuster, insists that one way or another Democrats must not waver on the substance.
“We cannot allow this opportunity for real reform to be sidetracked by another ineffectual ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ or some watered-down cosmetic changes that won’t make the Senate more functional,” the aide said. “Republicans need to understand that we need to change the Senate, and that means changing the rules. If Republicans choose not to come to the table to talk real reform, the Constitutional option is available.”
Sahil Kapur is a congressional reporter for TPM. He previously covered politics and public policy for numerous publications including The Guardian and The Huffington Post. He can be reached at sahil [at] talkingpointsmemo.com.