WASHINGTON -- A small bipartisan group of senators opposed to broad filibuster reform are closing in on a compromise package that would derail the building momentum toward a rules change in January. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) has been the most vocal internal opponent of substantial Senate rules reform, and Democratic sources say he is now finalizing talks with the bipartisan group of senators.
On Tuesday, Levin told HuffPost that he was optimistic an agreement would soon be reached and that he was opposed to the "talking filibuster," the most far-reaching reform on the table. "There's a lot of conversations going on. There's a lot of things I'm involved in. There's a lot of things that I think are going to happen -- that I'm optimistic are going to happen. I don't want to be more specific," he said. "I'm optimistic it's going to happen. Hopefully we're going to be able to work out something."
On Monday, HuffPost had reported that the talking filibuster proposal, pushed by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), might have as many as 52 votes -- enough to change the rules under a controversial process called the "constitutional option" by proponents and the "nuclear option" by opponents. (The death Monday of Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) lowers that number to 51.)
Weigh the fate of filibuster reform with HuffPost's "Breaking the Filibuster" vote tracker.
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Senate Rules Committee and the number three Democrat, is also involved in the bipartisan talks, as is Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.). Politico reported earlier that Republican Sens. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), John McCain (Ariz.), Jon Kyl (Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.) have reached out to Democrats in the hopes of derailing use of the constitutional option by coming up with a narrower filibuster reform that could win two-thirds support.
The issue was not discussed during Tuesday's caucus-wide meeting of Democrats and is instead being handled in smaller groups. One source familiar with the talks said that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), an advocate of filibuster reform who is conflicted by his respect for the institution of the Senate, is aware of the ongoing negotiations, but not involved in them.
"We haven't decided exactly what we're doing yet, but there's very broad support in the Democratic Party for changes," Schumer told HuffPost. "Everyone would say the ideal would be to get a good agreement where you get two-thirds [of the Senate]. If you can't, we'll see what happens."
Schumer said the right filibuster package could sail through the upper chamber. "I would say there are 90 members of this chamber, a significant majority of both parties, which would like to see something change and are fed up with how the Senate works," he said. "It's a bipartisan yearning to fix it. Whether we can come to an agreement or not between the parties, we'll see."
Levin noted that current rules already provide for a talking filibuster. "We already have rules which require people to be present and to talk. I'm in favor of enforcing the current rules which make people talk," he said. "We haven't done that adequately. We need to do it adequately. I think we can do it within the current rules."
It is true that the Senate majority can force the minority to keep talking during a filibuster by maintaining a quorum of 51 senators on the floor at all times. Doing that for longer than a few hours or a day has proven effectively impossible, however.
Merkley's proposal would put the onus of holding the floor on the foes of legislation, rather than its backers. Opponents of Merkley argue that the Senate's purpose is to secure the status quo, referring to George Washington's famous, if apocryphal, description of the chamber as the saucer that cools the hot tea coming from the House. (The metaphor was eerily prescient in its imagery, given the rise of the Tea Party.) Merkley counters that under his proposal, the minority would still be able to block legislation it opposes, but would have to do so out in the open with great energy expended.
The bipartisan reform package would ax the talking filibuster requirement, but is expected to include procedural changes to prevent the filibustering of certain motions. It would also give the Republicans concessions on the amendment process that they have been demanding. Reid has been reluctant to compromise on amendments, because the minority party frequently uses the process to force gotcha votes -- Viagra in health care reform, for instance -- rather than to constructively legislate.
Last week, Merkley told The Washington Post's Greg Sargent that despite the energy behind filibuster reform, it could still fall short. "Filibuster reform has more momentum than it has had in a generation," Merkley said. "But it's not a sure thing, because there are great concerns over changing the rules in an institution that rarely changes its rules. We have a few short weeks. Unless folks mobilize outside of this building and drive a message home, then reform of the filibuster may fizzle."