Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) offered his Republican counterpart an ultimatum on Tuesday afternoon: come to a deal on filibuster reform soon or Democrats will do it on our own.
“I hope that within the next 24 to 36 hours, we can get something that we agree on,” Reid told reporters in the Capitol. “If not we’re going to move forward on what I think needs to be done. The caucus will support me on that.”
The Democratic majority leader has vowed to weaken the filibuster but is deferring action while he continues weeks-long negotiations with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) over a resolution. He’s keeping his options open to change the rules with a 51-vote majority if a deal is not reached.
Last week Reid charted out a middle path that would involve shifting some of the burden from a majority seeking to conduct Senate business to a minority seeking to obstruct. Currently the onus is on a majority to maintain a 51-vote quorum while seeking to advance legislation and nominees; Reid’s approach would require a filibustering minority to keep a critical mass of 41 senators in a chamber while stalling.
As Reid weighs his options, champions of filibuster reform are wary that Republicans will agree to any meaningful changes. And the leading Senate champion of reform is pushing Reid to ditch his hopes of bipartisanship and move forward with the constitutional option.
“Leader Reid has left open two paths to rules changes,” Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) said in a statement late Tuesday. “While I’ve always thought that improving how the Senate works should be an area ripe for bipartisan agreement, it is clear at this point that the constitutional option would produce the strongest package and make the Senate more functional.”
A McConnell aide had nothing new to report but said the Republican conference had a full discussion of the options on filibuster reform at private meeting Tuesday.
The details of Reid’s discussions with McConnell remain a mystery. Merkely deferred all questions about the nature of their talks and internal Democratic discussions to Reid. He has said multiple times that he believes Democrats have 51 votes to reform the filibuster.
Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), the leading Democrat against weakening the filibuster with a bare majority, has sponsored a scaled-back plan with Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). He said he has “problems” with using what he and Republicans dub the “nuclear option” to bypass the ordinary two-thirds threshold and change the rules with a bare majority.
Levin told reporters Tuesday that he isn’t sure if any other Democrats are committed to opposing a rules change with a simple majority. He said that if such a move is considered, he won’t seek to lobby colleagues one way or another and will simply “vote my conscience.”
For now, proponents of filibuster reform are nervous about the endgame, hopeful that Reid won’t go wobbly on the constitutional option, and willing to accept some incremental reforms even if they don’t get their full talking filibuster.
“I — well, satisfied is a relative term,” Merkley told reporters of Reid’s direction. “I would like to see the talking filibuster. … So that’s kind of the gold standard. Sometimes you have to settle for the silver or bronze standard but I’m still advocating for the gold standard.”
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.