Bipartisan Senate group offers rules changes, rejects ‘standing filibuster’ requirement

December 28, 2012

A bipartisan group of senators recommended a package of reforms Friday to smooth over some of the chamber's cumbersome procedural hurdles, but the proposal would leave in place the minority party's ability to use a 60-vote hurdle to get past a final filibuster.

The group's work, led by Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and John S. McCain (R-Ariz.), would make it easier for the majority to bring legislation to a full debate on the Senate floor by eliminating the multiple 60-vote hurdles it takes to move through legislation and nominations. 

The net effect would make the Senate a more efficient body at approving legislation or nominees when a huge majority supports the pending measure. It would lessen the ability of a lone senator or a small band to impede progress through delaying tactics — or the mere threat of those tactics — that sometimes prevents Senate leaders from even considering popular legislation.

“It takes a week just to overcome that threat or that filibuster just to get to debate the bill. We spend days and days and days trying to get a bill to the floor so it can be debated," Levin told reporters Friday afternoon.

However, the Levin-McCain group would allow for a filibuster on a final passage of the legislation, meaning that a majority of less than 60 votes would fail to win approval. The group also rejected the reform sought by most of the younger Senate Democrats, particularly those elected in the past six years, that would have mandated that those filibusters would then have required the minority party to actually speak at length on the chamber floor and if they eventually gave in, the majority would have been able to proceed to a final vote on just a simple 51-vote majority.

The proposal has not been formally accepted, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) allowed Levin and McCain to make presentations Friday afternoon to their respective caucuses. A final decision is likely to come to a head next week when the 113th Congress is sworn in.

McCain and Levin worked with eight senators, including Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who holds an influential role over the large Democratic classes of 2006 and 2008 because he served as the party's campaign chairman and helped get each of them into office. Schumer is also chairman of the Rules Committee, for which Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) — a key McConnell ally — serves as the ranking member, and helped McCain and Levin draft their proposal.

Rules reform has become a cause of the moment among liberal activists, many of whom latched onto the idea of ending the filibuster during the 2009 and 2010 drive to pass President Obama's health-care plan — which ended with a more centrist version because progressive ideas such as the "public option" failed to clear the 60-vote hurdle.

Reid has resisted the broader sweep of doing away with the filibuster, but earlier this year he became very frustrated with Republican filibusters on basic steps such as the motion to proceed, an arcane move that merely begins debate on a pending matter. He said he would support the effort to eliminate some filibusters by changing the rules on a 51-vote margin, reversing years of prior statements supporting  the Senate's long-standing tradition of requiring formal rules changes to have a 67-vote hurdle to take effect.

Veteran senators on both sides of the aisle cling to that super-majority requirement in changing the rules as the key distinction between the House and Senate. "That's the nuclear option, to change by majority vote," Levin said.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), a leader of the Democratic reform efforts, cast doubt on the proposal for not going far enough. He said it remained "extremely important" to include his "standing filibuster" requirement so that the public would actually see the objections of the minority party. His main partner, Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), said without such a requirement, "you wouldn't have responsibility" for the filibuster.

McCain dismissed their complaints as those coming from Democrats who had never served in the Senate minority, having no appreciation for the chamber's ability to afford rights to the minority party that forces legislation to become more bipartisan. "Most of them, in all due candor and honesty, have never been in the minority,” McCain said. “Those who have been in both majority and minority are the most reluctant to see this," McCain said.

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