01/05/2011 01:04 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Senate Dems Introduce Rules Reform Package: Keep Filibuster But Make It Old School

With Reporting By Ryan Grim

WASHINGTON -- The handful of Senate Democrats proposing to overhaul the upper chamber's rules and procedures released their roadmap Wednesday morning, but conspicuously missing from the package was an attempt to reduce the number of senators required to end a filibuster.

While the four-page resolution would change the way the Senate considers legislation and nominations, 41 determined members of the minority would still have the ability to block Senate action.

The package does, however, include a reform that would tilt the balance of power toward the majority: Senators must actually be speaking on the Senate floor in order to keep the filibuster alive. If objecting senators finish speaking, the filibuster would end and the blocked bill in question would move to a final vote.

The rules-reform package, introduced by Sens. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), is slated to be discussed on the floor later Wednesday. It is, as one aide put it, "the culmination of discussions going on for months and months and months."

In terms of its reach, the proposal is both logical and constrained. It calls for the elimination of secret holds on nominees and for reforms to the amendment process so that majority and minority leaders are allowed no more than three amendments that "have been timely filed ... and are germane to the matter being amended." The latter provision may seem like an effort to woo bipartisan support, but a top Republican aide said the GOP objects because it would limit the power that senators have traditionally had to introduce any amendment to any bill.

The reform package also would allow for a shorter, two-hour window for debating a motion to proceed to legislation, which would make it impossible to filibuster the motion to move to debate a bill. Should the minority party filibuster any bill, it would require that those doing the filibustering provide a reason for doing so.

rules reform

For those who argue that the filibuster should be ended entirely, or at least reduced from its 60-vote threshold, the package falls short. Democratic lawmakers had been debating making alterations to that provision for months now, but during negotiations with leadership their vision was pared back.

Members were reportedly concerned about the vote count. On Wednesday morning, Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) proclaimed that the "last thing" the Senate needed to do "is start changing rules, with 51 votes and simple majority, and make the Senate a smaller version of the House."

Mainly, however, there was worry throughout the party that they could end up in the minority in the near future.

"I'm not in favor of getting rid of the filibuster," former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean said on Wednesday morning during a breakfast organized by the Christian Science Monitor. "I do think there is an argument to be made for minority party having some say. The filibuster has been so badly abused though. And it gets abused cyclically that is the Democrats abused it, the Republicans were worse, Democrats came back and we were worse then they were. Now they are even worse."

Dean argued in favor of abolishing secret holds, and for some reform of the filibuster. "Whatever reforms they do will be positive," he added, but cautioned, "Republicans are right when they make the point that we might not like the results of [getting rid of the filibuster]."

This post was updated with additional reporting