POLITICS
01/02/2013 02:25 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Filibuster Reform: Senate Plan From Carl Levin, John McCain A Gift To Republicans, Warn Opponents (UPDATE)

WASHINGTON -- A filibuster reform counterproposal put forward by Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and six other senators includes a provision that would be a boon to Republicans hoping to tack controversial amendments on to legislation headed for passage.

Debate over the future of the filibuster could begin as early as Thursday, sources close to the situation said, though Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) can postpone it to later in January. The Levin-McCain approach is in competition with a plan put forward by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), which would still allow the minority to filibuster legislation but would require them to do so by actually speaking on the floor. Merkley told the Washington Post's Greg Sargent that if the Levin-McCain proposal comes to the floor, he'll vote against it and would press others to do the same.

Merkley's plan has enough votes to pass, according to a HuffPost vote count.

The Levin-McCain approach could also have a surprising consequence: Instead of tipping the balance of power toward the majority, it will leave in place the silent filibuster, which requires 60 votes to override, but would allow amendments to be adopted by a simple majority vote.

The proposal guarantees the minority party the possibility of at least two amendments on every bill. If the amendments are germane to the bill, they would be subject to a simple majority vote after debate is closed. Because the vote to close debate has to occur before members of the majority know whether a controversial amendment will be added, they cannot use their cloture power to block the amendments.

For instance, consider a hypothetical situation in which Democrats bring a bill to the floor related to funding health care, and Republicans bring up an amendment to defund Planned Parenthood that a handful of conservative Democrats might vote to support. The majority Democrats would have to decide whether to kill the overall bill before the vote actually occurs on the amendment.

Shortly after the Levin-McCain proposal was released last week, a large coalition of progressive and labor organizations announced its opposition to the bill. Groups that spend more time on defense than on offense would have the most to lose from the Levin-McCain plan, opponents said.

Planned Parenthood, asked about the amendment provision, told HuffPost in a statement that it was worried the provision would make it easier to restrict women's access to health care. "Planned Parenthood's interest is in protecting women's access to health care and despite the fact that Americans clearly supported that goal in the November elections, it's also clear that a group of lawmakers continues to find ways to interfere with that access," said PPFA's Dawn Legunes. "The solution is clearly in bipartisan cooperation but we have concerns about making it easier for some politicians to restrict women's access to health care. These are people who used a highway bill to restrict access to provisions for birth control and other preventative care contained in the health care reform act."

Shane Larson, a lobbyist with the Communications Workers of America, which has taken the lead on filibuster reform, said that the amendment provision deeply worries him and his allies. "We think it is one of several major flaws in the Levin proposal, but it by far is the one that gives the most away to the Republicans, politically, than it would gain for functionality of the Senate. If Senator Levin and Republicans support allowing amendments to clear with 51 votes, they should then be in favor of all legislation passing with 51 votes," he said.

A HuffPost/YouGov poll conducted in late November found that 65 percent of those polled believe senators should have to participate in debate for the duration of a filibuster, while only 9 percent said that senators should be able to filibuster without being physically present.

UPDATE: 8:58 p.m. -- A Senate Democratic leadership aide told HuffPost, "Senator Reid is negotiating with [Senate Minority Leader Mitch] McConnell with the goal of producing a package of reforms that will make the Senate work more efficiently. While these negotiations take place, Senator Reid will preserve the option to make rule changes with a simple majority vote. To that end, the Senate will remain on the first legislative day by recessing instead of adjourning as those talks continue."

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