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Harry Reid didn’t reform the filibuster, but he might have blocked some conservatives

By Washington Post staff,

Senate leaders have reached a deal on procedural reform that alters some of the chamber’s more cumbersome procedures but leaves the 60-vote threshold for ending a filibuster intact. Paul Kane and Rachel Weiner reported that the deal left some reformers feeling underwhelmed:

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) largely accepted the recommendations from a bipartisan team of senior senators that the chamber needs to streamline its operations, not overhaul rules that give the minority more rights than in any legislative body in the world.

Liberal activists, as well as some junior Democrats, expressed disappointment with the proposal because it did not fundamentally alter the filibuster practice. That wing of the party, led by Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.), pushed to include a “talking filibuster” provision that would have forced the minority to hold the floor for marathon speaking sessions to prevent a vote on a simple 51-vote margin. The reformers also suggested shifting the burden to the minority by requiring 41 votes to sustain a filibuster rather than 60 votes to break one.

“The agreement avoids measures that would actually raise the costs of Senate obstruction. Neither the talking filibuster provision nor the shifting the burden provision is expected to be included in the final package,” Fix the Senate Now, a coalition of liberal advocacy groups that has been running ads calling for the end of filibuster practices, said in a statement Thursday morning.

Ezra Klein spoke with Reid about the 60-vote threshold decision and had this to report:

“I’m not personally, at this stage, ready to get rid of the 60-vote threshold,” Reid (D-Nev.) told me this morning, referring to the number of votes needed to halt a filibuster. “With the history of the Senate, we have to understand the Senate isn’t and shouldn’t be like the House.”

What will be reformed is how the Senate moves to consider new legislation, the process by which all nominees — except Cabinet-level appointments and Supreme Court nominations — are considered, and the number of times the filibuster can be used against a conference report. You can read the full text of the compromise, which was sent out to Senate offices this morning, here (pdf).

But even those reforms don’t go as far as they might. Take the changes to the motion to proceed, by which the Senate moves to consider a new bill. Reid seemed genuinely outraged over the way the process has bogged down in recent years.

“What the Republicans have done is turn the motion to proceed on its head,” he argued. “It was originally set up to allow somebody to take a look at a piece of legislation. What the Republicans have done is they simply don’t allow me to get on the bill. I want to go to it on a Monday, they make me file cloture, that takes till Tuesday. Then it takes two days for the cloture vote to ‘ripen,’ so now it’s Thursday, and even if I get 60 votes, they still have 30 hours to twiddle their thumbs, pick their nose, do whatever they want. So, I’m not on the bill by the weekend, and in reality, that means next Monday or Tuesday.”

The new proposal will, among other things, help stop a small band of conservatives from being able to block legislation, Kane reported:

The key new proposal allows the elimination of one filibuster vote during the “motion to proceed” to a bill, when the chamber begins considering legislation. Republicans have increasingly filibustered the motion to begin debating legislation to either slow passage of or block bills altogether.

GOP senators say they use the move because Reid has been increasingly using an even more arcane maneuver that prevents them from offering amendments to legislation. So the proposal, crafted by Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), would guarantee that the opposing side would get to offer at least two amendments if Reid tried to shut off a wide-open chance to offer amendments.

“Offering amendments is a pretty important thing in the U.S. Senate,” Levin told reporters this week.

The biggest effect of the changes would be to thwart the power of a small band of conservatives who have used the Senate’s complicated rules to their advantage. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), a staunch anti-spending conservative, has blocked or delayed hundreds of popular bills that he considers wasteful spending by threatening to use every procedural hurdle to slow-walk the bill, even if it was expected to pass by more than 90 votes.

So, Reid had to decide whether to devote an entire week or more to pass such non-controversial measures, often choosing to hold off on a bill. Under the new proposal, Reid could likely move those pieces of legislation in a day or two.

Related:

Senate filibuster deal disappoints reformers

Far more filibusters in recent years, but they rarely look like Jimmy Stewart’s movie version

Harry Reid explains why he killed filibuster reform

Wonkbook: The two flavors of filibuster reform

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