January 16, 2013

It’s hard to tell right now what’s up with Senate reform. On the one hand, reformers received a setback when Majority Leader Harry Reid gave a lukewarm statement of support in Nevada over the weekend. On the other, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) still claims he has the votes for a party-imposed reform plan.

There are plenty of Democrats who support substantive reform … but several, perhaps a half-dozen or more, are very reluctant to do it by party-line vote. At the same time, the stronger front that Democrats can present, the better their chances of getting Republicans to buy in on a compromise package, one that might not go as far as many reformers want but could still make the Senate less dysfunctional.

What will matter at this point? The Senate is still out this week; they’ll return to Washington next week. If Democratic senators come back and tell Harry Reid that they’ve been hearing an earful from key constituencies about filibuster reform, Reid will probably move forward with the toughest possible package. If, however, they haven’t been hearing about filibuster reform — maybe they’re hearing guns, or debt limit, or nothing in particular — then Reid is going to be very reluctant to push hard on this one. After all, reform isn’t going to matter for legislation in the 113th Congress, given divided government (since almost everything that has a chance of passing will need the support of both John Boehner and Barack Obama and therefore will easily clear 60 votes in the Senate). Sure, nominations will be helped by reform, but it’s not as if Obama is pushing very hard for anything there, so why should Reid?

No; the energy on this one has to come from Democratic senators returning from home with a strong interest in reform. So they have to hear now from Democratic activists and Democratic-aligned interest groups. If that’s not happening this week, the odds are that meaningful Senate reform will just have to wait for a while. Maybe a long while.