December 28, 2012
Senator Charles Schumer
Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY), one of the members of a bipartisan group of senators searching for a compromise on filibuster reform. (Ricky Carioti/Washington Post)

We haven’t had much news about Senate reform lately — and remember, we’re under a week away from opening day in the Senate, which many believe is the best day to change Senate rules by a simple majority vote, rather than the two-thirds normally required. However, there was a hint of movement today, with reports of a meeting of a group of senators searching for a compromise. The group, which includes both Democrats who are unenthusiastic about the Merkley/Udall reform proposal and Republicans who appear to be open to some reform, is supposedly circulating a proposal to both parties.

From the point of view of those who believe that the current 60 vote Senate is dysfunctional, but also want to protect the influence of individual Senators, the possibility of a compromise isn’t all that bad. The two-thirds “requirement” can be overruled with majority-imposed reform, but to the extent it does make reform difficult at least by establishing a norm that the majority party won’t simply impose whatever suits its short-term interest, it does help prevent some ill-considered reforms. So reform by consensus would be better than majority-imposed reform, even if the substance is the same.

And indeed, as I’ve argued before, it’s in the interest of Republican Senators to support moderate but meaningful reform; the eventual alternative will be majority-imposed reform that is unlikely to preserve much influence for minority-party Senators. It’s even possible to imagine the outlines of a compromise deal, one which would make it easy for passed bills to get to conference, restrict post-cloture time, return executive branch nominations and district judges to traditional simple majority confirmation, and attempt to find some additional way for zealous majorities to at least have a fair chance against zealous, significant minorities — in exchange for more secure rights to offer amendments, including embarrassing and poison-pill amendments.

It seems unlikely, however, that the dozen Republican Senators needed to pass such a compromise in the 113th Senate will in fact support a deal. What’s likely to happen instead is either majority-imposed reform or, perhaps more likely, an agreement that won’t really do much about the problem. Unfortunately, it’s also the case that the Merkley/Udall reforms fall short as well. Indeed, Senators appear to be framing the difference between the reformers and the compromise group as a fight over the “talking filibuster” proposal, which I’ve argued would be pretty much useless, anyway. Neither side seems to be talking about any new ways around the 60-vote threshold for bills, or about specific rules appropriate for the very different tasks of confirming executive branch and judicial nominees.

In other words, I’m not very optimistic at all that the Senate reform process this time around is going to solve the problem. Happy New Senate, everyone.