WASHINGTON -- Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) warned senators Monday to oppose the growing momentum for dramatic reform of the filibuster, saying, "It may be the most important thing you ever do."
Use of the filibuster to stall legislation -- when the minority party refuses to end debate on a bill unless 60 senators vote to do so -- has escalated in recent years, rising from a rarity to the norm. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has been signaling his readiness to curb the tactic, often noting that he has faced 385 filibusters during his leadership while Lyndon Johnson had to deal with only one when he ran the Senate.
A number of proposals are under consideration, including a bill sponsored by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and others that would essentially require an old-fashioned "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"-style filibuster: Minority opponents of a measure would actually have to take the floor and hold forth for hours, rather than simply signal their intent to obstruct.
Making such a rule change in the Senate would normally require a 67-vote majority. But when the Senate comes back into session in January, Democrats could use a set of procedural rules often called the "nuclear option" and pass the changes with a simple 51-vote majority.
It is that possibility that McConnell targeted in his Senate floor speech, saying such a move would be a pure power grab that would only make partisanship worse in the upper chamber.
"The American people sent us here to be their voice. They understand that those voices can at times become loud and argumentative, but they also hope we can disagree without being disagreeable," McConnell said.
"What they do not expect is for one party, be it Republican or Democrat, to change the rules in the middle of the game so they can make all the decisions while the other party is told to sit down and keep quiet," he said. "The American people want less partisanship in this town, but everyone in this chamber knows that if the majority chooses to end the filibuster, if they choose to change the rules and put an end to democratic debate, then the fighting, the bitterness and the gridlock will only get worse."
None of the proposals for filibuster reform have actually called for ending the practice, and lawmakers from small states are especially wary of giving up the ability to check the majority.
Some reformers have suggested ending the filibuster for procedural actions like motions to start debate and motions to appoint senators to conference committees, which work out differences in legislation passed by the two chambers.
McConnell, while not specifically addressing whether the filibuster needs to be fixed, has said that any fix must be based on bipartisan discussion. Using the nuclear option, he said Monday, would be an attack on the entire country.
"Let's be clear: The rules change that's being proposed is not an affront to me or to the Republican Party. It's an affront to the American people," McConnell said. "It's an affront to the people who sent me and the other 46 Republicans here to represent them in the Senate, but whose voices would be shut out if the majority leader and this cohort of short-sighted Senate sophomores have their way and permanently change this body."
A Democratic Senate staffer whose boss backs a rule change argued that Republicans have already permanently altered the Senate by obstructing just about everything.
"It's frankly unbelievable after this historic abuse of Senate rules that Republicans would cry foul over attempts to make the Senate work," said the aide, who spoke anonymously because the boss is still negotiating details of a reform proposal. "Senator McConnell had the chance to work with Senator Reid to bring bills to the floor under the gentlemen's agreement of 2011, and he failed to do so."
The "gentlemen's agreement" refers to Reid's pledge to abide by normal Senate rules as long as McConnell stuck to a more traditional wielding of the filibuster.
McConnell and other Republicans have argued that they have to filibuster so much because Reid does not let the Senate take votes on their proposed amendments.
The minority leader argued Monday that the Democrats' efforts to get things moving again will only make matters worse.
"In the name of 'efficiency,' their plan is to use a heavy-handed tactic that would poison party relations even more," McConnell said. "In the name of 'efficiency,' they would prevent the very possibility of compromise and threaten to make the disputes of the past few years look like pillow fights."
McConnell pointed to Reid's past comments opposing the nuclear option, which Reid once described as "breaking the rules to change the rules."
However, that was before Reid had to deal with nearly 400 filibusters.
Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.
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