January 26, 2013

SENATE MAJORITY Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) struck a deal Thursday to reform their chamber’s rules, to the outrage of those hoping that Mr. Reid would significantly weaken the filibuster. Common Cause called it “capitulation.” Credo labeled it “a compromised bait-and-switch.” President Obama “might as well take a four-year vacation,” said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) — despite the fact that an unreformed Senate has played a crucial role over the past two years in striking bipartisan bargains between Mr. Obama and the GOP-controlled House.

Actually, Mr. Reid and Mr. McConnell’s deal is a modest improvement crafted in a cooperative fashion and deserves praise on those grounds, not criticism because Mr. Reid did not risk counter-productive partisan war to do more.

The agreement, which passed overwhelmingly, streamlines parts of the Senate’s byzantine process. Mr. Reid secured restrictions on when the minority can use filibusters — for example, on motions to proceed to consider legislation, where filibusters eat up valuable time. In return, Mr. McConnell got assurance that the minority party can offer at least two amendments to legislation that isn’t subject to filibuster at that stage. The deal also does something to redress one of the most galling examples of Washington dysfunction — the chronic inability of the executive branch and the Senate to staff the government through a badly clogged appointment process. After clearing a 60-vote hurdle, most presidential nominations can now go to a vote almost immediately.

Post contributor Jonathan Bernstein points out that, together, these reforms don’t weaken the ability of relatively large minorities to block contentious legislation with 60 votes. But the changes do limit the ability of relatively small minorities to kill bills with wide support or to delay uncontroversial nominations. That is progress.

The Senate’s leaders deserve praise not only for what they did but for how they did it. Instead of jamming more ambitious reforms through on a partisan, simple-majority vote, Mr. Reid hashed them out with Mr. McConnell. In so doing, he offered a rare example of bipartisan accord, dodged the threat of partisan blowback hobbling the Senate and avoided setting a dangerous precedent for minority rights in his chamber. Rules changes typically require 67 votes, an arrangement that Mr. Reid’s Democrats will cherish when they find themselves once again in the minority.

Yes, the filibuster has been abused in recent years, and we would like to see more reform. Forcing lawmakers who would filibuster legislation to speak out on the Senate floor isn’t a bad idea. But these incremental changes are welcome.