December 4, 2012

Mitch McConnell (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Is Mitch McConnell willing to back up his filibuster rhetoric – which has now apparently become the standard GOP talking points against reform, if one looks at today’s alarmingly weak National Review item about the Senate – with a deal?

McConnell spent last week railing against reform on the Senate floor, making two key points. One is that he opposes efforts to change the rules by majority vote. Never mind that he was fine with it back when George W. Bush was president and Republicans had a Senate majority; for now, that sort of thing is, McConnell says, the worst form of tyranny.

He also claims that Republicans are blameless; they can’t help all those filibusters, because it’s their only defense against Harry Reid’s ruthless use of obscure Senate rules to prevent Republicans from offering amendments. Again, never mind the truth here (which is that Reid has stifled amendments sometimes, but that has little to do with all the filibusters). That is, ignore the possibility that Republicans really want to offer amendments so that endless amendment debates can kill a bill. Let’s instead take the argument that McConnell is making at face value.

If that’s what McConnell really believes, would he be ready to cut a deal? Suppose that Senate rules were altered to ensure that the minority party would have some reasonable chance to offer amendments on every bill that came up under normal procedure – but that in return, he and his Republicans agree to significant reforms of the rest of the process.

After all, if it protected senators on the minority side, and everyone voted for it, what other objection could McConnell have?

Now, neither McConnell nor most Democrats want to eliminate the filibuster altogether. Indeed, the main thrust of the Merkley/Udall proposals appears to be an effort to limit what groups smaller than 41 in number can do – for example, by reducing the total number of cloture votes necessary to move a bill to passage. And the specific details of how filibusters would be curtailed while protecting minority influence would have to be bargained out. For example, I’d certainly like to see filibusters eliminated on post-passage efforts to get a bill to conference with the House. I’d like to also see it made easier for the Senate to process uncontroversial judges by eliminating delays such as post-cloture time, and I’ve argued for eliminating any need for a supermajority for executive branch appointments, and with or without that there are certainly a lot of ways to streamline consideration of those nominations.

The specific details could be negotiated. The question is whether McConnell and the Republicans really want to cure the dysfunctional Senate. McConnell has made his concerns very clear – if he really means what he says, there’s really no reason for him to oppose a deal built on new guarantees for Republican amendments.

What about it? If Democrats offer it, would Republicans cut a deal?

If not, we can probably conclude that a dysfunctional Senate – and destroying Barack Obama – remain their only real goals.