Several senators, including reform leaders Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Tom Udall (D-NM), took to the Senate floor today in the waning hours of the 112th Senate to discuss the reform proposals which may be voted on tomorrow or soon afterwards.
I remain pessimistic that the reforms are going to do anything very helpful, especially for the cases in which large minorities block bills and nominations. As Greg Sargent reports, right now a good deal of the fight is over the Merkley/Udall group’s insistence on a “talking filibuster” provision which would force Senators to actually come to the floor and talk if they want to continue blocking a bill. My own feeling is that the talking filibuster plan won’t work, and so Senators Merkley and Udall should be willing to trade it in for something that would at least chip away at the 60-vote Senate — for example, a lower number for cloture on executive branch nominations, which is something that I think the minority party should be willing to live with.
Sargent reports that Merkley is threatening to vote against the bipartisan group’s proposal if it doesn’t include the talking filibuster. While he should certainly negotiate for the best possible package, at the end of the day some of the reforms that both groups are talking about really will help make delay by small groups of Senators less effective. As I look at the proposals from Merkley and Udall, and from John McCain and Carl Levin, it seems to me that on that question there are a number of suggestions with quite a bit of potential. For example, eliminating or at least reducing the possibility of filibustering the motion(s) to get to a conference committee after a bill passes is well worth doing, as is reducing the amount of delays on nominations.
Remember, what they’re aiming to do is not easy at all — they’re trying to simultaneously allow majorities to have a reasonable chance of getting things done while also making sure that minority parties, small groups, and even single Senators still have at least potential influence on what the Senate does. The old norms of the Senate used to achieve that goal, at least at times. Finding rules to replace those now-eroded norms is extremely difficult. But once again, for those who really do value the old strengths of the Senate, finding new rules to recover those strengths is the way to go. Perhaps they can take at least a bit of a step in that direction in the coming days.