Senate closer to compromise on proposal to overhaul rules

President Obama gave his second State of the Union address Tuesday before a joint session of Congress.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 25, 2011; 8:43 PM

The Senate edged closer Tuesday to resolving a standoff over the chamber's arcane rules after leaders presented a set of modest changes designed to satisfy a group of junior Democrats who are pushing to dramatically revamp the filibuster process.

In separate huddles, Democrats and Republicans considered several proposals that are designed to more quickly approve noncontroversial legislation and more smoothly confirm lower-level nominees to federal agencies.

"I think we have a way to proceed forward," Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters, a position that GOP leaders echoed. "We're making good progress," Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said.

The leaders have negotiated a small set of changes to rules that will require a couple of days to resolve, according to lawmakers and aides.

The key proposals would: reform the practice of "secret holds," which let a single lawmaker delay even the most noncontroversial provisions; allow for hundreds of junior nominees to agencies to be confirmed without a floor vote, rather than be slowed by the logjam of the more than 1,000 positions that now require full Senate votes; and forbid the minority from forcing Senate clerks to read full legislative amendments, a tactic rarely used but one that Republicans temporarily forced during the 2009 health-care debate.

This comes in reaction to a broader proposal from Sens. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), both elected in 2008. Their key idea was a "talking filibuster": If the majority failed to get 60 votes, the minority would have to hold the floor with an old-fashioned "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"-style filibuster. Once the minority no longer had speakers to hold the floor, the Senate would move toward a final vote.

Such a proposal was considered too much change by all Republicans and many Democrats, particularly veteran Democrats who are fearful of altering rules now that would lessen their powers if they lose the majority in two years. "That's part of the minority's right, to extend the debate," said Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), a 32-year veteran who supports more modest steps to alter the rules.

Junior Democrats also failed in their effort to win a change in their party's internal rules that grant committee chairmanships based on seniority. They were pushing for full-fledged internal elections similar to those used in the House. That was rejected, according to senators, and instead they are likely to approve an unusual new rule: The most senior Democrat on the committee would have to stand for a secret-ballot election before his or her colleagues, but no junior member would be allowed to challenge the senior senator.

In this fashion, seniority would still rule the day, but committee chairmen would be informed of how much displeasure there was with their performance.

Udall's most far-reaching idea is a provision that Democrats could just change the rules in a simple majority vote, despite provisions in the chamber's standing rules requiring a two-thirds majority to alter the rules. Senior Democrats, such as Reid and Levin, believe that such a unilateral change in the rules would fundamentally alter the chamber and would result in an even more forceful rules change by Republicans whenever they reclaim the majority.

Because of that fear, some major unions and abortion rights groups have mounted a behind-the-scenes effort to scuttle the Udall-Merkley proposal, which has support from other ranks of the liberal coalition such as MoveOn. "We have a longer range perspective on this. . . .We will need the filibuster to protect our core interests," said one union official, requesting anonymity to talk about the liberal division on the issue.

Udall and Merkley are taking an approach that junior Republicans took during their long tenure in the majority from 1995 to 2007, during which they held power for all but 18 months. The Democrats say their distinction is that the chamber's rules can be changed at the start of each new Congress, on the first day that new senators are sworn in, as opposed to the unsuccessful 2005 effort by the Senate GOP to change rules midyear.

A final consolation that is going to be offered to the younger Democrats is a vote on some of their proposals, but Republicans and senior Democrats expect to allow that vote only if it is set in the traditional sense that a two-thirds majority is required for it be considered successful.

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