WASHINGTON -- A broad coalition of nearly 50 progressive and labor organizations that have been actively lobbying for filibuster reform rejected a new bipartisan proposal out of hand, calling it a "recipe for continued Senate gridlock."
The group, Fix The Senate Now, called on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to dismiss the proposal, announced Friday by Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), and backed by a group of six other senators, including Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) and Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.).
The weak Levin-McCain counterproposal comes just as momentum for real reform is hitting a peak. The goal of the plan, Levin said, is to stop Democrats from pushing their stronger version of reform with 51 votes at the beginning of the next term -- an approach advocates call the constitutional option and opponents deride as the nuclear option. Levin and McCain propose that instead of changing the rules, which they believe require 67 votes, that the Senate instead adopt a two-year "standing order" that would be implemented with only 60 votes.
But the Levin-McCain plan largely leaves the filibuster as is, while also offering Republicans a major concession -- two guaranteed votes on amendments of their choosing on each bill. Reid has blocked many GOP attempts to amend legislation, as the opportunity is typically used by the minority to push stunt amendments to embarrass the majority. Often, they are pro-gun amendments meant to put rural Democrats in a bind, or other measures that are introduced for the sole purpose of creating campaign commercials.
If Republicans are able to persuade Democrats not to go forward with their own plan, and instead give concessions to the GOP, it'll be a remarkable political turnaround, given that Reid and reform supports appear to have the 51 votes already locked up.
The debate hinges on what is being called the "talking filibuster." Under current rules, senators need not speak or even be on the floor to block legislation. The stronger proposal, from Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), would change the rules to require the opposition to talk. Levin and McCain's proposal, meanwhile, would urge the leaders to urge senators to talk -- a gentlemen's agreement that Merkley's camp insists is meaningless. In 2011, Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) struck a gentlemen's agreement aimed at smoothing legislative business. It broke down within weeks.
Merkley's talking filibuster proposal is wildly popular with the public. A HuffPost/YouGov poll conducted in late November found that 65 percent of Americans believe senators should have to participate in debate for the duration of a filibuster, while only 9 percent of those polled said that senators should be able to filibuster without being physically present.
In a statement, Fix The Senate Now outlined the following concerns:
Lacks Transparency and Accountability: Instead of the “talking filibuster,” a reform that would force those wishing to block legislation make themselves public to explain their objection, today’s proposal would provide no transparency and accountability to obstructionists, continuing to allow for a silent filibuster of legislation. And it would require another “gentlemen’s agreement” between the two party leaders to promise to not object on behalf of any members of their caucus. Recent history has demonstrated the failure of such agreements in the Senate.
Would Still Provide Multiple Chances to Filibuster Legislation: The Fix the SenateNow coalition has called for eliminating filibusters on the motion to proceed – a reform that along with eliminating the filibuster on multiple motions to go to conference would leave one opportunity to filibuster a bill during the legislative cycle, instead of the current four. While the package offered by the eight Senators would combine the current three motions needed to go to conference into one motion, that one motion would still require a cloture vote. Further, the proposal would not permanently make the motion to proceed a non-debatable motion.
Obstructionist Status Quo for Many Executive Branch and Judicial Nominees: The reform package does not sufficiently streamline the executive branch or judicial nominations process for all nominations, as it would only reduce post-cloture debate time for select nominees. Given the judicial vacancies crisis and the continued obstruction of qualified and non-controversial nominees, this proposal falls well short of the necessary reforms. For example, while it would reduce post-cloture debate time for district court nominees, it would not do so for circuit court nominees.
Instead of today’s watered-down offering, which is more status quo than a serious reform package, the Senate should move forward on the following:
Eliminate the ability to filibuster the motion to proceed;
Require that those wishing to block legislation or nominations take the floor and actually filibuster—i.e., mandating “talking filibusters”;
Assert that 41 Senators must affirmatively vote to continue debate rather than forcing 60 Senators to vote to end debate; and,
Streamline the confirmation process for all nominees by eliminating the currently required 30 hours of post cloture debate on a nominee to zero or at a minimum no more than 2 hours.