WASHINGTON -- Senate Democrats met for their second caucus meeting about reforming chamber rules Friday, beginning to converge on three changes that supporters hope will increase transparency and prevent a small minority from blocking an up-or-down vote on measures.
"This is a two-step process," Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), one of the leaders of the effort, told The Huffington Post in an interview after the caucus meeting. "The first step is that we need to recognize that under the Constitution, we can...adopt rules with 51 votes and also cut off debate on rules that we want to adopt with 51 votes. ... The second step is building the consensus with 51 senators on what they want to actually be in the rules. ... And that's the tough business we're in right now."
According to Udall, bipartisan support is beginning to build around three proposals: 1) No longer allowing senators to filibuster the motion to proceed and instead allow a set amount of time for debate, 2) ending secret holds, and 3) stopping filibustering senators from hiding behind quorum calls and forcing them to speak up if they're blocking a bill.
Republican Sen. Dan Coats (Ind.) has publicly supported the first measure, telling NPR in November, "I think what we need is the opportunity to debate and have an up-or-down vote on every issue. Filibustering the motion to proceed -- that is, we can't even go forward and talk about an issue without overcoming or without gaining a 60-vote majority for it -- I would support removing that provision."
"If...the goal is to have deliberation then blocking getting to debate makes no sense, and that's a very common sense thing," Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), another advocate of the reform effort, told The Huffington Post on Friday. "If 41 people vote to say they want to continue debate then forcing there to be that debate makes sense."
What could happen on this measure is that both sides of an issue would be allowed an equal amount of time for debate. After that, the legislation would move to a vote.
The second proposal has broad bipartisan support, with 66 senators signing a letter pledging "no secret holds on legislation or nominations."
"The third thing is to really require people, if they're going to filibuster, to speak up. Don't hide behind the quorum calls. The American people understand a filibuster to be what it was in 'Mr. Smith Goes To Washington,'" said Udall. "If you are opposed to some direction the Senate is moving in, you're entitled to speak, you come out to speak, try to rouse your constituents, try to rouse the American people."
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) told The Huffington Post's Sam Stein to expect "fireworks" on Jan. 5, 2011, the day on which the Senate can, he argued, revamp its rules by a simple majority vote.
"[Former Sen.] Robert Byrd in 1975, the last time that we changed the rules and [brought the filibuster threshold] from 67 [votes] down to 60, actually stated on the floor that a majority, 51 senators, could change the rules," said Harkin. "And that's what we intend to do and that is what we are working on right now. We are coming on the fifth to basically send a motion to the vice president...that will change the rules and there is a procedure to provide 51 votes to do that. Robert Byrd said that in 1975 and that's what we are going to try to do."
Udall stressed that no consensus has been reached yet, and he expects "a very strong discussion over the next two weeks until we reach Jan. 5." Democratic senators are also reaching out to Republicans to get more support for the changes.
Ryan Grim contributed reporting.