POLITICS
11/24/2014 03:54 pm ET Updated Nov 24, 2014

Jeff Merkley Isn't Letting Democratic Losses Stop His Fight For Filibuster Reform

WASHINGTON -- Skeptics of last year's filibuster reform told Democrats that they'd be sorry with what they had wrought once Republicans regained power.

“I say to my friends on the other side of the aisle, you’ll regret this," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) warned at the time. "And you may regret it a lot sooner than you think."

Not at all, says Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), one of the key architects of the November 2013 change to Senate filibuster rules. In fact, the progressive senator is pushing for even more reform.

The new rules have made it easier for the Democratic-controlled Senate to approve most of President Barack Obama's nominees, since they need just a majority of the Senate to move forward, as opposed to the 60 votes previously required to clear a procedural hurdle. Now, however, Republicans have taken control of the Senate. If the GOP holds the upper chamber and retakes the White House in 2016, Democrats won't have the 60-vote filibuster available to block controversial nominees.

"It should be a simple majority," Merkley insisted in an interview with The Huffington Post, adding that he would stand firm even if Republicans keep the Senate and gain control of the presidency two years from now. "Not long ago, Supreme Court justices who were highly controversial -- it was a simple majority. 'Advice and consent' was never envisioned as a check that involved a minority of the Senate being able to block a presidential [nomination]."

The senator said he wants to go even further. Under current rules, even though only a majority is needed, the Senate must still wait a designated number of days before each nominee can come to a final vote. Because each nomination takes so long, Democrats will be unable to capitalize significantly on the current lame-duck session and push through their backlog of nominees before the new Congress begins in January.

Merkley proposes instead that if a nominee clears committee, the clock should start ticking. Opponents would have three weeks to raise concerns. Once that time period is over, under his plan, the nominee could be brought to the floor with merely an hour of debate before the final vote.

Republicans, for their part, aren't sure what they're going to do about filibuster reform when they take over in the new year. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) wants to keep the new rules, anticipating that a Republican will win the presidency in 2016.

"We should not return to the old rule," said Hatch during a recent speech to a group of conservative lawyers. "We should teach those blunderheads that they made a big mistake."

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), on the other hand, wants to return to the 60-vote threshold, arguing that it has become too easy for Democrats in the current Congress to pick off a few willing Republicans and win approval of Obama's nominees.

Many Republicans, however, are holding off on taking a position until the caucus discusses the matter in the new session of Congress.

But Merkley could have at least one Republican on board for even deeper changes to the rules: Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) recently told HuffPost that he'd like the Senate to be able to move forward on legislation with just 51 votes. This would expand the scope of last year's reform to include all legislation, not just presidential nominees.

"I've had colleagues across the aisle express opinions both ways," Merkley said when asked whether he believes Republicans will roll back his hard-fought victory.

Merkley pointed out that come January, Obama's nominees will still need to get heard in Republican-controlled committees and get a majority of the members to vote in order to move forward to the full Senate.

"My guess is, they'll say, "That's good enough. We have two chances as a Republican majority to kill nominees we don't want.' But we'll see," said Merkley.

Still, Merkley said he's going to keep up his quest to make the Senate function more efficiently. Even though his effort can get into arcane rules that many outside of Washington don't understand, he said his constituents appreciate it.

"I'll tell you, in Oregon, all the time, people come up to me and they rarely know I took on the teaser mortgages, even though I talk about it all the time," the senator said. "They rarely know I took on Wall Street with the Volcker Rule. … But they come up and say, 'Thank you for fighting on the filibuster. Thank you for fighting the paralysis of the Senate.' I'd say I get more off-the-cuff, unsolicited comments on that than everything else combined together. It resonates."

"It means you came here and you didn't just accept an institution you know to be broken," Merkley added. "You're fighting to make it work."

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