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What Mitch McConnell fears

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Steve Benen asks a sensible question: Harry Reid's proposed filibuster reforms are quite modest. If they pass wholesale, the 60-vote supermajority requirement will remain unchanged. So why's he so steamed?

I've asked Senate staff the same question, and I've gotten, in general, three answers.

First, moving to a "talking filibuster" is not seen as the minor tweak that some -- including me -- have made it out to be. True, it doesn't change the fact that the Senate is now a 60-vote institution. But it does make the life of an obstructing minority much harder. Given the size of the Republican minority, to fill a day-long filibuster, every senator would have to be up and speaking for at least half an hour, and a critical mass of minority senators would have to be in the chamber at all times. Coordinating that kind of action among 45 senators who've got fundraisers and flights and out-of-town family and who usually don't stay in Washington even for a full week at a time is no small task.

Second, speeding up the time it takes to break a filibuster reduces McConnell's power to slow the Senate down, which has been a significant element of his strategy. Again, it doesn't change the number of votes needed at the end of the day, but it does make it easier for Democrats to move through their agenda when they do have the votes.

Third and most importantly, the real fight, according to a number of Senate sources, is simply the effort to use the so-called "constitutional option" to change the Senate's rules with 51 votes rather than 67. If you look at McConnell's blistering speech Monday, that's actually what he focuses on first:

Let me explain in a little more detail what's being proposed. What this small group of primarily Senate sophomores is now proposing is that when the Senate gavels in at the beginning of the new Congress, a bare majority of senators can disregard the rule that says changes to the Senate's rules can only be approved on the same broad bipartisan basis we reserve for approving treaties and overriding presidential vetoes, a supermajority-plus. Lyndon Johnson once said of the 67-vote threshold for change to the rules that it, quote, "preserves indisputably the character of the Senate as the one continuing body in our policymaking process." End quote. And Senator Reid himself once described changing the Senate procedure by majority fiat as, quote, "Breaking the rules to change the rules."

Of course, Reid made that comment -- which is undoubtedly hypocritical in light of his current plans -- when McConnell was proposing to, well, change the rules using a majority vote. Here's what McConnell was saying at the time:

This is not the first time a minority of Senators has upset a Senate tradition or practice, and the current Senate majority intends to do what the majority in the Senate has often done — use its constitutional authority under article I, section 5, to reform Senate procedure by a simple majority vote.

As McConnell says, many rules have been changed using a majority vote, and no one doubts that the Senate can change its rules through a majority vote. But if Democrats use the procedure on a relatively high-profile agenda item like filibuster reform, the question for McConnell is when, and whether, it will stop.

Arguably, that shouldn't be a particularly big deal. Republicans control the House right now, and they likely will for the near future. So if McConnell actually thought Republicans were going to retake the Senate and the White House anytime soon, he might see the diminishment of the filibuster and the institution of an easier threshold to change Senate rules, at a moment when he won't get blamed for it and when there are few consequences, as a boon to the coming era of Republican reign.

But Senate Republicans have thrown away two prime opportunities to retake control of the chamber (2013 and 2012), and there's a dawning sense among the GOP that the demographics might be tilted against them for the foreseeable future. If that's true, then McConnell is wise to fight this out as if he'll be in the minority forever, rather than tempering his concern as minority leader with his incentives as a future majority leader. A world in which McConnell's only tool will be obstruction is a world in which it's a real problem if Senate Democrats feel empowered to change the rules with 51 votes. Sure, the reforms Reid's proposing now are modest, but what about the reforms that he'll propose three years from now?