WASHINGTON -- Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) accused Democrats Tuesday of throwing a "bomb" into the Senate by proposing to change rules for obstructing legislation with filibusters.
Filibusters happen when a senator refuses to end debate on a measure and requires a three-fifths vote to proceed -- a step that has been demanded more than 110 times in the current session of Congress.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has proposed changing the Senate rules when the next term starts in January to make filibusters a bit harder to achieve. Normally, Senate rule changes require a 67-vote majority, but Reid has proposed invoking seldom-used procedures -- which opponents call the "nuclear option" -- to make the changes with a simple 51-vote majority.
The idea has outraged Republicans, who are the minority in the Senate, prompting a long argument Tuesday that even overshadowed debate on the looming so-called "fiscal cliff," which McConnell said should be the main focus.
"The last thing on my list would have been to throw a bomb into the Senate, have it blow up, and have everybody mad as heck," McConnell told reporters after he and Reid sparred over the issue in the Senate chamber. "I'm just perplexed at the judgement on display here."
But the move comes from Democrats who have become increasingly frustrated with the GOP, which even has stalled bills that have near unanimous support by forcing the 60-vote "cloture" votes at every step in the process of passing a bill on the floor.
Reid wants to ban filibusters at the start of debates and when the Senate appoints members to work out differing legislation with the House, but preserve them in other situations. He also wants to require senators to actually stand and speak during a filibuster -- the way they used to, and as was seen in the movie "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington."
"We have this crazy idea ... that if we're going to have a filibuster, you have to stand and say something, not hide in your office someplace," Reid said on the Senate floor. "We are making simple changes. We're not changing the Constitution, we're not getting rid of the filibuster ... We're making three simple rules."
McConnell, however, decried Reid's suggestion, saying the majority leader intends to change the rules by breaking the rules.
"The majority leader and myself ought to be sitting down together to consider whether rule changes are appropriate," said McConnell, who has often argued that Republicans filibuster because Reid won't let them have amendments.
"It's important to remember that the Senate hasn't always functioned like it has the last two years, and the rules were exactly the same," McConnell said. "We don't have a rules problem, we have a behavior problem."
Reid argues that the behavior problem is on the GOP's side, and he says he's stopped the GOP from having amendments fewer than 20 times, and largely because they were attempting to add "poison pill" amendments.
Reid's solution would involve having 51 senators change the rules at the start of next year. Such a move has been rarely carried out in the Senate, but just the threat of it has prompted bipartisan changes to be enacted. There also have been a number of times -- notably four times under the leadership of former Majority Leader Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) -- when precedents were changed on the fly during stalled debates.
Proponents of such rule changes call them the "Constitutional option." Opponents call them the "nuclear option" because such changes invite the out-of-power party to retaliate. Indeed, Reid opposed such steps when he was the minority leader.
McConnell suggested Reid should step back from the brink and consider long-running Senate practices that are meant to protect the minority.
"What we need is a majority leader with a different view about the Senate consistent with its norms and traditions," McConnell said.
But he also offered something of an olive branch, saying the two should sit down and talk out the problems. "I'd be happy to do that," McConnell said. "I think this would be a good time to do it, looking to next year."
Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.