A photo of a smiling Mitch McConnell from Google Images is suitable to use on the news that Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have reached a deal on filibuster reform: many of the photos now on websites announcing the news show a smiling McConnell. Which is why many Democrats and progressives are gloomy, particularly when they hear the details.
Many Democrats had wanted a return to the day of the talking filibuster, when lawmakers had to get up and actually talk for a (long) while if they wanted to use the device to halt a bill. Or, they wanted McConnell to shove through reform that effectively removed the filibuster as a potent tool for the minority/obstructionism (choose the one or two of these that fit your feeling on it). The news of the compromise will be a bitter pill for many Democrats.
UPDATE: The best explanation of what’s happening comes via Ezra Klein:
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have come to a deal on filibuster reform. The deal is this: The filibuster will not be reformed. But the way the Senate moves to consider new legislation and most nominees will be.
“I’m not personally, at this stage, ready to get rid of the 60-vote threshold,” Reid (D-Nev.) told me this morning, referring to the number of votes needed to halt a filibuster. “With the history of the Senate, we have to understand the Senate isn’t and shouldn’t be like the House.”
“What the Republicans have done is turn the motion to proceed on its head,” he argued. “It was originally set up to allow somebody to take a look at a piece of legislation. What the Republicans have done is they simply don’t allow me to get on the bill. I want to go to it on a Monday, they make me file cloture, that takes till Tuesday. Then it takes two days for the cloture vote to ‘ripen,’ so now it’s Thursday, and even if I get 60 votes, they still have 30 hours to twiddle their thumbs, pick their nose, do whatever they want. So, I’m not on the bill by the weekend, and in reality, that means next Monday or Tuesday.”
But the deal Reid struck with McConnell doesn’t end the filibuster against the motion to proceed. Rather, it creates two new pathways for moving to a new bill. In one, the majority leader can, with the agreement of the minority leader and seven senators from each party, sidestep the filibuster when moving to a new bill. In the other, the majority leader can short-circuit the filibuster against moving to a new bill so long as he allows the minority party to offer two germane amendment that also can’t be filibustered. Note that in all cases, the minority can still filibuster the bill itself.
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- Progressive senators working to dramatically alter Senate rules were defeated on Thursday, with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and his counterpart, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), set to announce a series of compromise reforms on the Senate floor that fall far short of the demands. The language of the deal was obtained by HuffPost and can be read here and here.
The pressure from the liberal senators, led by Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley and backed by a major coalition of progressive groups, created the political space for Reid to cut the deal with McConnell, which includes changes to how the Senate operates but leaves a fundamental feature, the silent filibuster, in place.
The deal will address the filibuster on the motion to proceed by changing the amount of debate time that would follow a cloture vote from 30 hours to four, speeding up Senate business and allowing more legislation to reach the floor. But the deal still requires Democrats to muscle 60 votes to invoke cloture on that motion, despite Reid’s earlier suggestion that he would bar a filibuster on that motion entirely.
An alternate route to get past the motion to proceed will be implemented as a change to the rules, and a filibuster on the motion would be barred if the majority can find eight members of the minority, including the minority leader, to sign a petition. But Democrats already have 55 members in their caucus, five short of the 60 needed to end a filibuster, so it’s unclear what the purpose of getting three additional Republicans would be.
Under the agreement, the minority party will be able to offer two amendments on each bill, a major concession to Republicans. This change is made only as a standing order, not a rules change, and expires at the end of the term.
The new rules will also make it easier for the majority to appoint conferees once a bill has passed, but leaves in place the minority’s ability to filibuster that motion once — meaning that even after the Senate and House have passed a bill, the minority can still mount a filibuster one more time.
The good news is that the Senate could not be more dysfunctional than it has been in the last four years, when the Republican minority used the rules of the body to wage an unprecedented campaign of obstruction. The bad news is that it appears that the Senate will only improve slightly in the near future, if at all.
Senators seeking to block a bill will not be required to perform “talking” filibusters or gather the 41 votes needed to filibuster a bill, according the outline of the deal reached between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).
However, the number of filibusters and cloture votes to break those filibusters may be reduced by a few key procedural changes. In exchange for allowing the minority to offer three amendments, Republicans have agreed not to filibuster bills during the motion to proceed. The deal also shortens the debate time on nominations and reduces the wait time between cloture votes on candidate and nomination votes from 30 to two hours.
Basically, both sides agreed to a few parliamentary tweaks that may break through the backlog of federal judicial nominees, which has reached “emergency” status in some districts.
Reid had threatened to go “nuclear” and pass more significant reforms with only 51 votes. He backed off this option for the same reason Republicans refused to use what has also been called the “Constitutional” option in the mid-2000s, for fear that Democrats could experience retaliation if they ever ended up in the minority.
A top Democratic aide conjured liberal nightmares when he told the Huffington Post, “Everybody was so focused on the filibuster, but as you know, there were a lot of Dems who really felt uncomfortable going there. Let’s face it, if not for 60, then Roe v. Wade might be dead and Social Security would be private accounts.”
However, Bush’s Social Security privatization plan never even got a vote in a Republican House and overturning Roe would likely require a Constitutional amendment, thus a two-thirds majority of the Senate.
Senate aides offered conflicted assessments of the deal……
The final details of the deal struck by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), which make only minor changes to the filibuster rules in the Senate, show why leading reformers are so disappointed in the outcome.
The agreement, which was finalized Thursday morning, is far more scaled back than what reformers like Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Tom Udall (D-NM) wanted. It does not require filibustering senators to speak on the floor, nor does it shift the burden from a governing majority to an obstructing minority. But it makes changes aimed at speeding up less controversial Senate business.
The language of the two-part rules change package, provided to TPM by Reid’s office, can be read below.
The new rules would permit a Senate majority to bypass the filibuster on a motion to proceed to debate with the condition that either a group of senators on each side of the aisle agrees, or the minority is guaranteed the chance to offer amendments.
The new rules limit debate time for sub-cabinet and district court nominations and reduces the number of required hours between cloture and final confirmation from 30 to two. It also lowers the number of cloture motions required to go to conference with the House.
“This does very little to change how the Senate as a body functions,” said a pro-reform Democratic aide. “After these small changes the Senate will operate much the same way as it did yesterday.”
The deal mirrors the plan that Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Carl Levin (D-MI) put forth, with tweaks to address concerns that the minority could more easily add poison pills to bills.
Although others may have preferred more sweeping reforms, “Reid got virtually everything he has said he wanted,” said a Democratic leadership aide, pointing to many remarks from Reid saying he wanted to make the Senate function more efficiently.
The pro-reform Democratic aide scoffed at that claim.
Senate leaders in both parties are brokering a deal to avert the so-called nuclear option Senate majority leader Harry Reid has threatened with regard to changing the body’s filibuster rules. A Senate Republican aide confirms that the negotiated proposal between Reid and the GOP is well under way but will not include the requirement of a “talking filibuster”–a top priority of Oregon senator Jeff Merkley, a leader of the filibuster reform movement within the Senate.
The deal does include a number of changes to the rules for which Democrats like Merkley and his colleague Tom Udall of New Mexico have been agitating.
As expected, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and his Republican counterpart have reached a deal on filibuster reform that falls far short of the ambitious goals of many on the left….
While there’s likely to be a lot of angst and upset on the left about this deal, which does less to actually cut back on the use of the filibuster than to reform Senate rules to make it easier to get things done more quickly, but I think Kevin Drum gets it right when he points out that the odds of truly radical reform were pretty slim to begin with……
The Senate is a funny institution, though. For one thing, people tend to stay there far longer than they tend to stay in the House of Representatives, so those “old guard” Democrats who were reluctant about filibuster reform For another, after a time the “new guard” becomes the “old guard” and that typically means that they tend to have far more respect for Senate traditions and rules than they might have as a newcomer. People who are gung-ho to eliminate the filibuster now may not feel that way in six or twelve years, assuming they’re still around. Additionally, there’s the fact that a change in party control will happen. At some point, the Republicans will have control of the Senate and, then, the Democrats who hate the filibuster now will suddenly find it very useful. Finally the Senate has never been an institution accustomed to radical change. Anyone who walks in there thinking they are going to change everything to suit what they think is idea hasn’t paid any attention at all to the history of the body they are now a member of..
..When even the Senate Majority leader doesn’t support your goal, though, you shouldn’t be too surprised, and you shouldn’t hold out much hope that things will be any different in the future.
There may be some further concessions on judges and perhaps other nominees in the final deal, and that would be an improvement, but this deal still makes it too easy to obstruct.
It’s nice to be able to start a debate but Harry Reid will still be wasting time if he devotes a bunch of time to debating something that won’t be voted on because of the filibuster. In reality, Majority Leaders are not going to have a bunch of pointless debates. Time is too precious.
What we need are rules that make it possible to filibuster, but so painful that it would only be done a few times a year, at most. It should be reserved for really big things, not be part of the everyday procedure of the Senate.
This deal doesn’t even come close to doing that. And it’s going to haunt Harry Reid for the next two years. just like his decision not to punish McConnell in 2011 has haunted him for the last years.
Hopes dimmed Thursday for vast rules changes in the Senate to limit the filibuster as a weapon in the partisan obstruction that has ground action in the chamber to a near standstill.
Senators, mostly liberal Democrats, had sought to bring reforms at the start of the new Congress, and a key component was the requirement that any senator wishing to conduct a filibuster must remain talking on the Senate floor in the style actor James Stewart made famous in the film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
Instead, top Senate leaders were heading toward a more modest agreement, aides said.
The changes are critical to make at the beginning of the new congressional session, when Senate rules can be altered with a simple majority, rather than the typical 60-vote threshold that has become the new norm for conducting business. That high bar is difficult to reach in a narrowly divided Senate.
Democrats, who have a 55-45 majority in the chamber, were holding a private lunch Thursday to debate the final product. Republicans were expected to follow.
“The incremental ‘reforms’ in the agreement do not go nearly far enough to deliver meaningful change,” said a statement from Fix the Senate Now, a coalition of legal scholars and liberal activists that has pushed the issue. The group saidthat if Senate agrees to the deal as being discussed it will have “missed an opportunity to restore accountability and deliberation to the Senate, while not raising the costs of obstruction.”
To be sure, the agreement being forged between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would help usher legislation along more swiftly in the slow-moving chamber.
Under the deal, senators would give up their ability to filibuster — or hold endless debate — on the procedural step that is required to advance a piece of legislation, called the motion to proceed.
In exchange for giving up the right to filibuster on the motion to proceed, both sides would be guaranteed the opportunity to offer two amendments to the bill — a particularly important provision for the minority Republicans, who have long complained that they are forced to filibuster because Reid blocks them from trying to amend bills with votes on provisions Democrats dislike.
Even though senators could still filibuster the actual bill, eliminating the filibuster on the procedural step would cut days off the typical debate time.
Liberal activists, as well as some junior Democrats, expressed disappointment with the proposal because it did not fundamentally alter the filibuster practice. That wing of the party, led by Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.), pushed to include a “talking filibuster” provision that would have forced the minority to hold the floor for marathon speaking sessions to prevent a vote on a simple 51-vote margin. The reformers also suggested shifting the burden to the minority by requiring 41 votes to sustain a filibuster rather than 60 votes to break one.
“The agreement avoids measures that would actually raise the costs of Senate obstruction. Neither the talking filibuster provision nor the shifting the burden provision is expected to be included in the final package,” Fix the Senate Now, a coalition of liberal advocacy groups that has been running ads calling for the end of filibuster practices, said in a statement Thursday morning.
“The bipartisan deal Senator Reid struck is a compromised bait-and-switch deal which he and Senator McConnell call filibuster reform, but we know will do next to nothing to actually fix the filibuster,” concurred Sarah Lane of CREDO, a liberal activist network.
A pro-reform Senate aide told Wonkblog that he was similarly baffled. “Right now, you have to negotiate with McConnell to get on a bill,” he said. “Tomorrow, if this passes, you still need to negotiate with McConnell to get on a bill. It changes nothing on how we move forward.”
We now have a comprehensive look at the filibuster reform package accepted by Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid. It’ll be schlepped to Democrats at an early afternoon meeting. And yes, it functionally ends the campaign for the “talking filibuster,” and for putting the burden of filibusters on the minority to get 41 no votes, instead of on the majority to get 60 ayes.
“It looks a lot like McCain-Levin,” says a Democratic aide.
And it does. Late last year, as the Merkley-Udall campaign gathered steam, John McCain teamed up with Carl Levin, one of the Democrats’ Senate statesman, who was reluctant to support a 51-vote “nuclear option” and get 100 percent of what reformers wanted.
It’s done, it’s far too weak to make much of a difference, Sen. Harry Reid still runs the show, and we’ll be at this again in 2014. The filibuster is intended to be a great tool of moderation in the legislative branch. It hasn’t been that for some time, and the longer we keep putting off real reform with these half-baked reforms, the worse the eventual calamity and the more likely the best aspects of our upper chamber are ultimately abandoned. Small “c” conservatives should be most disappointed today.
Many analysts now agree that after the 2008 Presidential election the Democrats seemingly frittered away their advantage by what many considered overreaching, displaying hubris, and underestimating the GOP’s ability and willingness to use every piece of power at their disposal to check mate President Barack Obama’s proposals.
The proof of this compromise will be: in the end, will it restore a semblance of efficacy to the Senate? Or will historians look back and say the Democrats blew it (again) by seeming to be naive in the importance of using power once they get it? The answer will be revealed in coming months — at a time when news cycles are increasingly carrying stories and columns about GOPers trying to rig the elections so rather than the party seeking a bigger tent, they can make the system more favorable to their tent and not have to substantially change it. One thing Republicans know how do to: use power when they have it.
Time will tell whether Reid will be seen as smart or having been politically rolled. Will the reform make the Senate run smoother, or prove to be away to make sure that those who say no have the institutional tool to easily keep the Senate from saying yes.