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.
Also on HuffPost:
2012 -- Barack Obama
U.S. President Barack Obama waves to supporters following his victory speech on election night in Chicago, Illinois on November 6, 2012. (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
2008 -- Barack Obama
Nov. 4, 2008: U.S. president-elect Barack Obama waves at his supporters during his election night victory rally at Grant Park in Chicago. (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
2004 -- George W. Bush
In this Nov. 3, 2004 file photo, President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush salute and wave during an election victory rally at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)
2000 -- George W. Bush
U.S. Republican presidential candidate and Texas Governor George W. Bush casts his vote in Austin, Texas on November 7, 2000. (PAUL RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)
1996 -- Bill Clinton
President Bill Clinton, wife Hillary and daughter Chelsea wave to supporters in front of the Old State House during an election night celebration in Little Rock, Ark. on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 1996. (AP Photo/David Longstreath)
1992 -- Bill Clinton
Bill Clinton and Al Gore celebrate in Little Rock, Arkansas after winning in a landslide election on November 3, 1992. (AP Photo)
1988 -- George H. W. Bush
President-elect George Bush and his family celebrate his victory on November 8,1988 at the Brown Convention Center in Houston. (WALT FRERCK/AFP/Getty Images) <em><strong>CORRECTION:</strong> An earlier version of this slide was titled "George W. Bush." It has been fixed.</em>
1984 -- Ronald Reagan
President Ronald Reagan gives a thumbs-up to supporters at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles as he celebrates his re-election, Nov. 6, 1984, with first lady Nancy Reagan at his side. (AP Photo/File)
1980 -- Ronald Reagan
President-elect Ronald Reagan and wife Nancy wave to well-wishers on Tuesday, Nov. 4, 1980 at Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles after his election victory. (AP Photo)
1976 -- Jimmy Carter
Democratic presidential candidate Jimmy Carter embraces his wife Rosalynn after receiving the final news of his victory in the national general election on November 2, 1976. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
1972 -- Richard Nixon
U.S. President Richard M. Nixon meets at Camp David, Maryland, on November 13, 1972 to discuss the Vietnam situation with Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger (L) and Maj. Gen. Alexander M. Haig Jr.(R), Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs. (Photo by AFP PHOTO/NATIONAL ARCHIVE/Getty Images)
1968 -- Richard Nixon
President-elect Richard M. Nixon and his wife, Pat, were a picture of joy at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, Nov. 6, 1968, as he thanked campaign workers. At left are David Eisenhower, Julie Nixon's fiance, Julie and her sister Tricia at center. (AP Photo)
1964 -- Lyndon Johnson
President Lyndon Johnson proves he's a pretty good cowhand as he puts his horse, Lady B, through the paces of rounding up a Hereford yearling on his LBJ Ranch near Stonewall, Texas, on November 4, 1964. (AP Photo/Bill Hudson)
1960 -- John F. Kennedy
Caroline Kennedy peeps over the shoulder of her father, Senator John F. Kennedy, as he gave her a piggy-back ride November 9, 1960 at the Kennedy residence in Hyannis Port, Mass. It was the first chance president-elect Kennedy had to relax with his daughter in weeks. (AP Photo)
1956 -- Dwight D. Eisenhower
President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Vice President Richard Nixon salute cheering workers and Republicans at GOP election headquarters in Washington, November 7, 1956, after Adlai Stevenson conceded. (AP Photo)
1952 -- Dwight D. Eisenhower
President-elect Dwight Eisenhower and first lady-elect Mamie Eisenhower wave to the cheering, singing crowd in the Grand Ballroom of the Hotel Commodore in New York City on Nov. 5, 1952 after Gov. Adlai Stevenson conceded defeat. (AP Photo/Matty Zimmerman)
1948 -- Harry S. Truman
U.S. President Harry S. Truman holds up an Election Day edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune, which, based on early results, mistakenly announced "Dewey Defeats Truman" on November 4, 1948. The president told well-wishers at St. Louis' Union Station, "That is one for the books!" (AP Photo/Byron Rollins)
1944 -- Franklin D. Roosevelt
President Franklin Roosevelt greets a young admirer as he sits outside his home in Hyde Park, N.Y., on election night, November 7, 1944. Behind him stands his daughter, Mrs. Anna Roosevelt Boettinger and the first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt. (AP Photo)
1940 -- Franklin D. Roosevelt
American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882 - 1945) speaking to a crowd of 25,000 at Madison Square Garden in New York on Nov. 8, 1940, before his sweeping re-election for a third term. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)
1936 -- Franklin D. Roosevelt
The Republican Governor of Kansas and presidential candidate, Alfred Landon (1887 - 1987) greeting the American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882 - 1945) (seated) prior to the presidential elections. Future United States President Harry S. Truman can been seen in the background. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
1932 -- Franklin D. Roosevelt
Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt of New York at his Hyde Park, N.Y. home November 6, 1932, seen at the conclusion of the arduous months of campaigning following his presidential nomination in Chicago. (AP Photo)
1928 -- Herbert Hoover
President-elect Herbert Hoover is seated at a table with wife, Lou, and joined by other family members on Nov. 9, 1928. Standing from left: Allan Hoover; son; Margaret Hoover, with husband, Herbert Hoover, Jr.,at right. Peggy Ann Hoover, daughter of Herbert Hoover Jr., sits with her grandmother. (AP Photo)
1924 -- Calvin Coolidge
U.S. President Calvin Coolidge and first lady Grace Coolidge are shown with their dog at the White House portico in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 5, 1924. (AP Photo)
1920 -- Warren Harding
Senator Warren Harding, with wife Florence and his father George, shown on Aug. 27, 1920. (AP Photo)
1916 -- Woodrow Wilson
Surrounded by crowds, President Woodrow Wilson throws out the first ball at a baseball game in Washington in this 1916 photo. (AP Photo)
1912 -- Woodrow Wilson
Woodrow Wilson (1856 - 1924), the future American president, casts his vote while Governor of New Jersey, on Nov. 14, 1912. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)