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Schumer Outlines Rules Reform Deal, Democrats Divided

First Posted: 01/25/11 08:43 AM ET Updated: 05/25/11 07:25 PM ET

Schumer Rules Deal

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) predicted on Tuesday morning that Democrats and Republicans would come to an agreement on revamping some basic procedural underpinnings of the Senate, but his outline of that deal left some Democrats disappointed.

Elements of the deal would require 67 votes for passage. Other aspects would not be codified in the form of a rules change, reform advocates and Hill aides familiar with the talks say. Instead, it would depend on an informal understanding between the two parties to enhance the chamber's efficiency and comity.

Schumer, who chairs the Senate Rules Committee and has taken the lead on negotiations with Republicans, outlined some tenets of a prospective compromise during an appearance on MSNBC's "Morning Joe."

"First of all, everyone would agree the Senate -- I wouldn't say [is] totally broken, but -- needs some fixing," he said. "The filibuster is used far too much. We don't get to vote on even minor things like judges and secondary appointments. The Republicans would say we don't allow enough time for amendments. That we do something called fill the tree, which blocks amendment. There's some justification on both sides there. And so I think we can, in a bipartisan way, move to change some of the egregious things such as the secret holds where any one member can hold up a nominee for months and not reveal who he or she is. We can certainly cut back on the number of appointments by the president that need Senate confirmation."

"But there's also a way to get to the nub of this and have the leadership on both sides agreeing to pull back," Schumer added. "[Minority Leader Mitch] McConnell will say, 'I'm not going to block the motion to proceed and filibuster everything,' and [Majority Leader Harry] Reid would say, 'I'm not just going to fill the tree automatically and prevent amendments.' So I think there's a possibility we could come to a pretty good agreement."

A possible deal might seem like welcome news to Democrats frustrated by the lethargic pace of legislating in the Senate, but rules-reform advocates have become likewise exasperated with the state of their leadership's negotiations.

For starters, an informal deal is, by definition, unofficial. While aspects like ending secret holds would be incorporated into the rules, the reduction in the number of filibusters wouldn't. "The whole thing could blow up again in a couple months," said one operative who has lobbied the Senate on rules reform. "They are getting nothing."

Democrats, this operative added, would have been able to secure bigger, longer-lasting changes had they been willing to exercise what is known as the "constitutional option" -- the parliamentary maneuver that allows a simple majority of the chamber to set its rules at the onset of a new session.

But a top Democratic Senate aide, whose boss supports rules reform, said that as of Monday "there were definitely not 51 votes for the constitutional option." Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) hinted as much over the weekend.

"People just feel like we are opening Pandora's box if we start saying that any majority can change the rules that you will start an inevitable slide towards being like the house. That might be right, you know," the aide said. "The countervailing view is that the option is already out there, Republicans will use it if they want or they won't."

Democrats are also divided on the possible sacrifice of the majority leader's ability to "fill the tree," which some see as too much to give up in exchange for the end of secret holds and a reduction in the number of judicial and executive-branch nominations.

"I cannot imagine Reid getting rid of one of their only and best weapons," said one party strategist who has worked closely on various aspects of Senate procedure.

Perhaps more telling was the swiftness with which Republicans touted the underlying implication of the deal.

"Was Sen. Schumer agreeing with us that Reid fills the tree too much, denying everyone amendments?" McConnell spokesman Don Stewart emailed The Huffington Post shortly after Schumer's appearance on MSNBC. "That's a McConnell argument. Nice of Sen. Schumer to back us up."

This post has been updated with additional reporting

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