Senate Leadership Appears Ready to Accept Small Changes to Filibuster

January 24, 2013

by Jeremy Leaming

The momentum for serious reform to the filibuster picked up steam last year after Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) expressed great frustration over Republicans abuse of the legislative tool. Reid had faced nearly 400 filibusters since leading the Senate and admitted he was slow to embrace filibuster reform. Reid claimed he was finally ready to support serious reform proposals championed by Sens. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.).

But it now appears Reid is ready to suffer ongoing Republican obstructionism in the Senate. TPM’s Sahil Kapur reports that Reid is nearing a deal with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-K.Y.) “to enact minor changes to the filibuster.”

The deal, Kapur reports would make “very modest changes,” such as permitting the “majority to bypass a filibuster on the motion to proceed to debate – if a group of senators on each side agree or if there’s a guarantee that both sides will bet to offer amendments ….”

According to Kapur, however, the only “meaningful upside” of the agreement centers on nominations – apparently part of the deal would include “an expedited process for some nominations ….”

The filibuster has been used to scuttle dozens of judicial nominations, which have helped lead to a high vacancy rate on the federal bench. The filibuster, however, has also been used to shut down consideration of an array of progressive measures, such as ones addressing pay inequity, immigration reform and climate change.

In a Jan. 21 editorial, The New York Times raised concerns that on the cusp “an opportunity to end much of this delay and abuse, Democrats are instead considering only a few half-measures.” The Times highlighted reform proposals advanced by Merkley and Udall, which would require senators to take action to mount and sustain a filibuster. It would require senators bent on slowing consideration of legislation or nominations to actually announce their reason for doing so, and then continue explaining those reasons. As the newspaper noted the proposal would kill the “current practice of routinely requiring a 60-vote majority for a bill through a silent objection ….”

Supermajorities, the editorial board noted “were never intended to be a routine legislative barrier” and that Reid appeared ready to toss aside “a moment for change.”

Sen. Merkley, in a Jan. 21 statement, reaffirmed his support for bold action: “We face big challenges, and we can’t tackle those challenges if we miss this rare opportunity to end the paralysis of the Senate.”