POLITICS

Filibuster Reform Is Top Item On 2013 Senate Agenda, Pledges Harry Reid (UPDATE)

01/22/2013 12:13 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2013

WASHINGTON -- The Democratically controlled Senate will reform the filibuster within the next day and a half whether Republicans go along or not, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Tuesday.

If there's no agreement, "we're going to move forward on what I think needs to be done," Reid told reporters. "The caucus will support me on that."

Reid said he's willing to pursue the "constitutional option" of changing the rules without the usual two-thirds vote. Previously, senior Democrats had professed reluctance to change the rules with a simple majority, saying they feared it would set a dangerous precedent. Opponents have called the tactic the "nuclear option."

The sudden deadline puts fresh pressure on the GOP to get on board, and Reid said he and his staff have been negotiating with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Democratic senators led by Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon has proposed a package of rule reforms, including "talking filibusters" that require senators to stand on the floor and talk if they want to block a piece of legislation. A bipartisan group of senators has suggested lesser changes -- some of which the Merkley group likes -- including limiting filibusters at the beginning of debate on a bill.

Reid on Tuesday presented key elements of his proposals at the weekly Democratic caucus meeting. The proposals include eliminating filibusters on motions to proceed, and an idea proposed by Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) that would shift the burden onto the minority by requiring 41 members to vote in order to maintain a filibuster, rather than requiring the majority to find 60 votes to end a filibuster.

Reaction from some filibuster reform advocates, at least to the 41-vote option, was mostly positive. Merkley called it a “step in a positive direction.” He said he would continue to advocate for reform that included the talking filibuster, which he called a “gold standard.”

“Sometimes you have to settle for the silver or bronze standard, but I’m still advocating for the gold standard,” Merkley said.

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) called the 41-vote approach a “terrific idea,” adding that he would “enthusiastically support it.”

“To me, the touchstone of any change to our rules ought to be does it advance the functioning of the Senate, is it something that my caucus could live with in the minority, and does it preserve the essential character of the Senate,” Coons said.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), a co-sponsor of the scaled-back, bipartisan filibuster reform package, also said he supports putting some onus on the minority to keep a filibuster going. “We’ve been trying to get that done for a long time," Levin said. "That’s the way it hopefully would be."

Levin said he continues to have problems with a nuclear option. “It’s a critical question around here as to whether or not we’re going to have an intensified gridlock by the kind of reaction to the use of a constitutional or nuclear option that we as Democrats expressed when Republicans were threatening a nuclear option not too many years ago,” Levin said. “It’s important we avoid that.”

Levin said he supports getting rid of the filibuster on the motion to proceed, but again held out hope for an agreement.

Merkley, on the other hand, called on Reid to proceed with the constitutional option, making the case in an emailed statement that it would “produce the strongest package and make the Senate more functional.”

“We face big challenges, and we can’t tackle those challenges if we miss this rare opportunity to end the paralysis of the Senate,” Merkley said.

Earlier, Reid had said the Senate would tackle the rules reform after passing Superstorm Sandy aid and pledged to make it a top item on the U.S. Senate agenda.

"Once we complete that vital legislation, the Senate will take action to make this institution that we all love, the United States Senate, work more effectively," Reid said, calling for an end to the uncompromising legislative style that has driven hundreds of filibusters in recent years.

"We'll consider changes in the Senate rules," Reid said, although he also warned it may not happen immediately.

Normally, rule changes are made on the first day of a new session, but Reid has kept that "first day" alive through the technicality of not adjourning the Senate. This means he can still invoke what supporters call the "constitutional option" -- and opponents have dubbed the "nuclear option" -- and change Senate rules with a simple majority vote, instead of the two-thirds majority usually required to make such changes.

"Because this matter warrants additional debate, today we'll follow the precedent set in 2005 and again in 2011 to reserve the right of all senators to propose changes in the Senate rules. We will explicitly not acquiesce in the carrying over of all the rules from the last Congress," Reid said, implicitly raising the argument that the Senate is not a "continuing" body that operates under the same rules every session unless the members say otherwise.

Early on Tuesday, Reid had forecast that the rules "discussion" would come "later this month."

"I'm hopeful and cautiously optimistic that the Republican leader and I will reach an agreement that allows the Senate to operate more effectively," Reid said.

Reid's suggestion that he can work out something with McConnell is a bit of an olive branch. McConnell has maintained that he and Reid should sit down and discuss such rule reforms.

On Tuesday, however, McConnell suggested the rules were fine and it was the members causing the problems.

"The Senate isn't functioning as it should. And it has nothing to do with a process that has served us well for a very long time," McConnell said, speaking on the floor just after Reid. "But if we work together and strive to avoid some of the bad habits we've developed around here, I believe we'll be able to achieve the solutions that have eluded us for the past four years and develop positive results for the people who sent us here."

Contending that President Barack Obama had been "focused on reelection and Senate Democrats focused on avoiding tough decisions," McConnell blamed them for the stalemates of the last two sessions of Congress.

Reid also laid out the first 10 bills to be introduced by the Democrats, a mix of bipartisan measures and others that would likely face filibusters. The bills, which will not be acted on in order, spell out the priorities of the majority party for the 113th Congress. Topping the list are comprehensive immigration reform and gun violence prevention, followed by education, infrastructure, the Violence Against Women Act, veterans aid, climate change, tax loopholes, voter suppression and the farm bill.

One of the proponents of stronger filibuster reform, Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), took to the floor a little later to demand that the Senate not take half measures.

"There must be change," said Udall, one of 13 senators backing a resolution to change the rules. "The abuse of the filibuster and other procedural rules has prevented the U.S. Senate from doing its job. We are no longer 'the world's greatest deliberative body.' In fact, we barely deliberate at all."

Udall suggested the constitutional option need not actually be invoked. "Each time the filibuster rule has been amended in the past, a bipartisan majority of senators was prepared to use the constitutional option. But with a majority vote on the reforms looming, enough members agreed on a compromise. And they passed the changes with two-thirds in favor," he said.

But he added that if Republicans don't agree, Democrats have a responsibility to act.
"I hope we do it working with our colleagues on the other side of the aisle," Udall said. "But if they will not come with us, we are in a position where we are in the majority and we have to make this institution work for the American people.

This article has been updated with reaction from filibuster reform advocates.

Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.

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