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July 18, 2019

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Senate looks to avoid conflict, seeks compromise on filibuster issue

Harry Reid

Harry Reid

We’ve been hearing the competing refrains for well over a year now. On the one side, a band of Democrats, perplexed by record-busting use of procedural filibusters, says it’s time to dramatically scale back the system. On the other side, Republicans — and some Democrats too — say to change the rules of the game would deny the minority their rights.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said in the final weeks of the last Congress that reforming the filibuster would be the first order of business in the newly composed chamber. The matter is considered under the umbrella of a rules package in which the Senate would, by simple majority, adopt the procedural strictures members would operate under for the rest of the two-year session.

It wasn’t all that radical a notion, considering that the House sets rules for itself every two years, and that the procedural filibuster is more a creation of custom than of the Constitution: It’s only been in regular use since 1917, and the 60-vote hurdle required to get around it has only been the standard since 1975.

But the Senate looks like it’s opting to avoid conflict over sweeping change and rather seek compromise.

Senate leaders appeared to collectively backpedal this week from the so-called “constitutional” reform option being pushed by Sens. Tom Harkin of Iowa, Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Tom Udall of New Mexico.

At issue is not the idea of working to block legislation per se, but changing the rules on how it is done. The three senators want to take the filibuster back to its purest form, where one senator stands up and argues for as long as it takes to bring a bill down. In past decades that is a rarity. “Filibusters” have come to mean “procedural” filibusters — a threat to talk.

The proposed changes would have also made it impossible to filibuster a motion to proceed — that is, an agreement to move on to the next order of business. It may sound technical, but it’s been the pitfall of many a bill on the Senate floor — most recently the Dream Act, which failed to clear a 60-vote cloture hurdle necessary for Congress to even take it up back in December.

Instituting those changes, backers said, would have streamlined the process of lawmaking in the Senate — and if that’s the case, conceivably made Reid’s job easier.

Reid’s staffers and colleagues have often remarked on his procedural prowess by referring to him as the “master of the Senate” — a buzz-line that is usually associated with hard-charging senator and later President Lyndon B. Johnson. But the parallel is at least chronologically apt in one regard — in the past two years, Reid did steer the Senate through its most productive session since the Johnson presidency, even though the 111th Congress also racked up the most cloture votes in congressional history.

But Reid, who has been knee-deep in the negotiations over the filibuster issue that are being primarily conducted by Sens. Charles Schumer and Lamar Alexander, didn’t seem to want to twist Democrats’ arms so hard on the rules as he has on high-profile legislative battles. The whole Democratic caucus, now barely more than a simple majority itself, wasn’t on board with the Harkin-Merkley-Udall proposals. And Reid seemed to indicate this week that he’d be fine aiming for a compromise that could receive the unanimous consent of the Senate even if that package would be far less robust.

“I think we have a way to proceed forward,” Reid said, adding that he expected a vote as early as Thursday, though an uncommon blizzard that hit the District of Columbia on Wednesday night may stay that timeline a bit. “We’ve been able as a result of our advocacy to get Republicans to agree to a number of changes ... we’re making a lot of progress.”

What’s likely to be adopted soon would make some real changes. The compromise package would annul the practice of “secret holds” by which a single senator can stop all progress on a bill, nomination or other piece of Senate action to either buy time for building a case against it or simply stall and delay the progress of Congress.

The rule changes are also likely to include a prohibition on minority members forcing Senate clerks to narrate the full extent of bills presented on the floor. Conclusive policy on offering amendments to address minority concerns that their lawmaking ability has been hampered by majority blocking tactics may also be in the offing.

But after a year of hearings, the fact that the compromise is a calm one has got to have the senators looking for a sweep, fearful that they may have missed their historical moment to change the political process for the better.

With 23 of their seats up for grabs in the next election cycle, Democrats are clinging to a small and endangered majority in the Senate. While advocates say the effort to reform the rules is a nonpartisan one, there isn’t any real Republican support in the Senate for tweaking the procedure.

“What will make this work best is not a change in the rules, but a change in behavior,” said Alexander, the Republicans’ chief negotiator on the filibuster and other rule changes. “Most of the time, bills should come to the floor, and we should stay as long as it takes to debate amendments.”

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