WASHINGTON -- Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), one of the chief proponents of the kind of rules reform that died in the upper chamber this week, said Friday that he believes a similar package can be passed down the road with the support of newer Republican members.
In an interview with The Huffington Post, the New Mexico Democrat put a good face on what was, for him, a dispiriting failure -- arguing that advocates of sweeping procedural changes were critical in setting the stage for the incremental changes that Senate leaders have agreed to. He was more optimistic, however, about future battles, which he hopes will be fought alongside his fellow first-termers.
"The senators since 2006 have been the real leaders for reform," Udall said. "I sense that Republicans too, and their numbers aren't as large, but senators in the '06 and '08 class of Republicans are dissatisfied with the rules. They just aren't at the point where they will step out of the party and join us."
Added Udall: "My guess is that with the larger Republican class coming in -- they are a very solid, thoughtful class -- I think as we move forward and we see how the Senate operates, we will have some of them join us in that effort."
Speaking a day after the Senate agreed on largely informal incremental reforms -- eliminating secret holds, lowering the number of nominees needing confirmation -- Udall lifted the curtain as to how and why a more ambitious agenda died at the hands of skittish lawmakers.
Udall said there was a sense of cautious optimism when he, alongside Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), introduced a more radical reform package in early January. That legislation kept the major parliamentary structures intact but would have, among other things, guaranteed amendments for each party and forced filibustering senators to explain the reason for their holdup.
Support for the package swelled upon its unveiling. Conservative media outlets opined in its favor. And within one day, a bill with a handful of cosponsors suddenly had 26.
With an eye on building support, Democratic lawmakers used a procedural ploy to extend the first legislative day of Congress until after a two-and-a-half week recess, thereby providing a longer window to find the simple majority needed for passage. (Rules-reform advocates argue that the Senate can set its own rules on the first day via this so-called "constitutional option." After that, changes require 67 votes.)
Intra- and inter-party negotiations quickly took on a more serious tone. But almost as quickly as momentum to pass rules reform had grown, it dissipated. By the time Congress returned to session, pro-reform lawmakers were dour.
"The key to what happened [during the recess] is we didn't get the 51 [members]," explained Udall. "At some point in that week back, between Monday and Tuesday, we all put our heads together, we were checking in with each other, and we realized that we just didn't have the votes to take control of the situation."
It remains a closely-guarded secret which of the 53 senators in the Democratic caucus refused to vote for the bill. In conversations with The Huffington Post, activists and Hill aides have put blame on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
"I'm not sure that the 51 votes weren't there. If Reid had wanted to do it he certainly would have tried it," said one operative who lobbied the Hill for rules reform. "But he hesitated."
Others, however, said that objections came from all elements of the party and were as much about content as process.
"There were a lot of people who echoed the [former Sen.] Chris Dodd argument, that these younger lawmakers didn't know what life was like in the minority and would value the rules they were now criticizing," a top Senate Democratic aide said. "There were people hesitant with doing the constitutional option. And there were people in the newer classes from moderate states who didn't want to be seen engaged in a partisan endeavor."
Either way, without a clear majority, Democratic leadership was left with only two options: push the more ambitious package via the constitutional option and keep whipping votes, or negotiate with Republicans on an alternative. The former risked setting a precedent of lawmakers attempting to change the Senate rules every session -- a precedent that one Democratic aide dubbed "Pandora's box." The latter risked rankling the pro-reform lawmakers. Reid and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) went with the latter.
"We were pushing the reform and knowing at the same time that our leadership was trying to negotiate something," Udall said. "If we had had the 51 votes, we might have been able to negotiate a stronger package."
In the end, the question was how Democrats could maximize their leverage. Republicans understood that the more far-reaching package of changes stood no chance of passage, but the mere specter of exercising the constitutional option was something GOP leadership wanted to avoid. So when the final arrangement was announced, alongside the incremental rules changes was a pledge to spurn its use for the time being.
"The constitutional option created terror on both sides, which led to some agreements and some progress," said Udall. "And mainly it was a political fear in terms of what might happen in the future, what the other side might do things like that. And you saw they had an agreement at the end of this, the final colloquy they engaged in the very end they said both leaders have agreed to not utilize the constitutional option in this congress or the next congress. It was anticipated that power would change down the road."