How Senate Graybeards Killed Real Filibuster Reform

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Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell have agreed to a set of rule changes, but the new regime falls far short of what young Democrats had demanded to fix the chamber.

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Joshua Roberts/Reuters

Like Huey Long quoting his oyster recipe, Al D'Amato singing Gene Autry, and Bernie Sanders just plain speechifying,* the filibuster-reform push was fun while it lasted, but it's over now. 

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced today that he's reached a deal with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on some procedural reforms that are intended to help cure the chronic, appalling dysfunction that's bedeviled the Senate since 2006 or so, when Democrats took over the body. Here's a quick list of the formal changes:

  • Shorten debate following a cloture vote on the motion to proceed from 30 hours to four.
  • Leave the ability to filibuster that cloture vote essentially intact.
  • Allow the minority to offer two amendments on every bill.
  • Shorten confirmation time for judicial nominees once cloture is invoked.

And two informal ones, which are to be executed without actually changing Senate rules:

  • Senators will have to actually be on the floor to threaten a filibuster.
  • Time allocated for debate will have to actually be spent on debate.

You can see the full proposals at the bottom of this post.

That's ... something. But the changes fall far short of what reformers had hoped for. In December, I wrote a primer on what the reformers wanted. Here's a list of those proposals and their fate:

  • End the filibuster altogether: As expected, Senator Tom Harkin's call for legislation to pass by a simple majority died. The idea was always fringe, even within the hardcore reform group.
  • Ban filibuster on the motion to proceed: Though debate after the vote is curtailed, the motion to proceed can still be filibustered.
  • Bring back the talking filibuster: This was probably the central tenet of a plan put forward by reform ringleaders Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Tom Udall of New Mexico. It won't be happening either. They wanted to force the minority to actually stay on the floor and speak, just like Long and D'Amato back in the day, in order to hold up business.
  • Ban filibusters on House-Senate conferences: No dice, although there will now be only one chance to filibuster bills after they've passed both chambers, rather than three.
  • Shift the burden on cloture: Al Franken's proposal to force the minority to come up with 41 votes rather than forcing the majority to produce 60, got nowhere.

So basically all of the major reform ideas came to naught.

What happened? The reformers had the wind at their backs. Everyone agreed that the Senate was grievously broken. Democrats had not only not lost seats in the Senate but had gained them. And Reid had publicly said that reform was needed and that he was willing to use the "nuclear option" -- changing the official Senate rules with a bare majority of 51 votes -- to get it done if he had to.

But the veterans got in the way. This was always the danger. Merkley and Udall are both freshman senators; neither one has ever been in the minority. While they agitated for changes, more senior Democratic senators eyed them warily, remembering when they'd been in the minority and used filibusters -- albeit less frequently than the current minority. Changing the rules with less than 60 votes seemed to them to set a dangerous precedent. Back in December, a Hill staffer told me that despite public reservations, those members would get in line when push came to shove. But it turned out Reid himself wasn't willing to use the 51-vote nuclear option to get the changes.

"I'm not personally, at this stage, ready to get rid of the 60-vote threshold," Reid told Ezra Klein Thursday. "With the history of the Senate, we have to understand the Senate isn't and shouldn't be like the House."

Advocates for major reform aren't delighted, but it looks like this plan will get through. (Progressive advocacy groups are less happy, and have been firing off angry missives all afternoon.) Democrats get at least some streamlining of the procedure, and Republicans get a chance to offer amendments, their major gripe.

And there will be ample chances to see whether it works soon. Will Richard Cordray, the recess-appointed director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau now up for confirmation, get a vote? Will judicial nominees? Will the pace of business speed up? Time will tell.

__

Yes, all of those are real filibusters of yore.


Filibuster Reform (1) by tpmdocs

Filibuster Reform (2) by tpmdocs

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Presented by

David A. Graham

David Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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