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Is filibuster reform at risk?

Note to liberals: Real filibuster reform is anything but a sure thing. It may even be at risk as we speak.

In an interview with me, Senator Jeff Merkley, one of the leaders of the reform effort, was surprisingly blunt about the risk that the proposed filibuster changes could be watered down. He predicted that without more mobilization and pressure from outside, reform could “fizzle.”

“Filibuster reform has more momentum than it has had in a generation,” Merkley said. “But it’s not a sure thing, because there are great concerns over changing the rules in an institution that rarely changes its rules. We have a few short weeks. Unless folks mobilize outside of this building and drive a message home, then reform of the filibuster may fizzle.”

The problem is not that filibuster reform won’t happen — if it came down to it, Dems would likely be able to mobilize 51 votes to pass reforms via a simple majority. Rather, the problem is that Democratic reluctance to go for this “constitutional option” is causing them to lean more towards negotiating a deal with Republicans — enabling it to pass without the constitutional option — that risks diluting reform. In other words, even if Dems can pass reform via simple majority, enough Dems may end up preferring instead to reach a deal with Republicans on a less comprehensive reform package.

It’s not quite clear who is talking to whom, but a number of Republican Senators — John McCain, Lamar Alexander, Lindsey Graham — are courting some of those Democrats who are getting cold feet about the constitutional option, an effort to peel them off from Harry Reid, who seems ready to change the rules by simple majority if necessary. The question is, what would these skittish Dems be willing to trade away to reach a deal?

One reform that some worry could be at risk in these bipartisan talks is the so-called “talking filibuster.” Merkley released a new memo last night detailing how this proposal would work: The filibustering party would be required to hold the floor nonstop, or a simple majority vote to end debate would be triggered. Some liberals worry Republicans would be happy to grandstand in this fashion, since they would be rewarded by right wing media for making a stand. But reformers insist forcing real filibustering would ultimately turn it into a far more difficult act than one Senator simply snapping his or her fingers — effectively how it works now.

And so, from the point of view of reformers, it’s now gut check time — nervous Senate Democrats must declare where they stand, and say they’re for real, and not watered down, reform, by simple majority if necessary. The only way this will happen, though, is if there is real mobilization outside the building, from labor unions and liberal groups. Some of these have started to organize, but Merkley fears it’s not enough.

“I want them to be intensely active,” Merkley says. “We need to keep shoring up our members who are nervous about change so they can be supportive of Harry Reid’s leadership.”

It’s always easy to overstate what pressure on Congress from outside can accomplish. But this is one case where a great deal really is riding on whether genuine mobilization outside the building takes place.