Senate Can't Make Up Its Mind on Filibuster Reform

Some lawmakers are miffed that Harry Reid may use a loophole for reform.


Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid wants to raze the roadblock that kept Democrats from more sweeping legislative victories during Obama's first term.

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Filibuster reform is one of the first items the 113th Congress will tackle. Ultimately, negotiations will be left up to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, but a number of lawmakers have their own proposals on how to fix the problem. It appears that no matter the outcome, some lawmakers will be left disappointed by the result.

The filibuster allows one single member to hold up a piece of legislation, and overcoming it requires "cloture," or a 60-vote super majority. Because there are only 53 Democratic senators, without reform most bills would require bipartisan agreement.

 Reid has offered McConnell a filibuster deal that would clear the hold ups on the motion to proceed, a vote that brings legislation to the floor for an official vote, but there has been no word yet on whether McConnell will accept the deal. And if he doesn't, Reid plans to move onto reform without Republicans.

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"I hope that within the next 24 to 36 hours we can get something we agree on. If not, we're going to move forward on what I think needs to be done," Reid said. "The caucus will support me on that."

However, one member said he will not vote for Reid's plan if it includes exercising a "nuclear option," which would allow Reid to exploit a Senate loophole that allows the majority leader to make rule changes with a simple majority at the start of a new Congress, instead of the required two-thirds majority vote. While Jan. 3 was technically the first day for the 113th Congress, Reid has "recessed" in the following days, a trick to expand the window of the first day into late January so a rules change could still take place.

Michigan Democratic Sen. Carl Levin says he cannot, out of principle, vote for filibuster reform with a simple majority.

"We need to change the way things work around here, we have too much gridlock," Levin says. "I have problems with the nuclear option and I may be part of a very few. It has been threatened before and it has never been used with good reason. It ignores our rules."

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Levin says that when Republicans threatened using the nuclear option in the past, Democrats were livid. He also says leadership should be careful to be the first to use it, because the Democratic caucus is not united about what a filibuster plan should look like, having offered competing plans.

Levin and Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain proposed a lighter filibuster reform that would eliminate the abuse of the filibuster on the motion to proceed, reduce the amount of time it takes to overcome a filibuster, and offer the minority party at least two amendments on most legislation.

Another proposal, put together by Democratic Sens. Tom Harkin of Iowa, Tom Udall of New Mexico, and Jeff Merkley of Oregon, along with support from independent Maine Sen. Angus King, is trying to bring back the so-called "talking filibuster," a provision that would require members to stand up and talk for the allotted time if they want to filibuster.

There was a time when filibusters were loud, epic displays of passionate opposition. Today, they are mostly silent, slowing actions used to keep a bill off the floor for a few extra days or kill it altogether.

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"There is little doubt that the Senate is broken and dysfunctional in substantial part because of the misuse of the filibuster rule," said King. "In fact, its recent overuse has stalled progress on virtually every important issue confronting our nation."

"We have the power to change the Senate from being a graveyard for good ideas, to an institution that can respond effectively to the challenges facing our nation,"  Udall said in a released statement. "Our proposal is simple, limited and fair. We make reasonable changes to nominations and conference committees and do away with the status quo of stealth and silent filibusters that prevents the Senate from getting its work done."