Senate nears approval of filibuster changes

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 26, 2011

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," said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.).

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 to force 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.

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