Senate Democrats unveil filibuster reforms
Sens. Tom Harkin, Tom Udall and Jeff Merkley have released their package of proposed reforms to the Senate rules. But before we get into what might change, let's say what won't change: The 60-vote requirement to break a filibuster won't change. The right to unlimited debate, to speak until your knees buckle and your voice gives out, won't change. In reality, the rights of the minority won't change at all. In some ways, they'll even be increased.
Here's how the filibuster would change: Motions to proceed can't be filibustered because to do so is filibustering the debate itself. Filibusters themselves have to feature continuous debate and discussion. After a filibuster against a nomination is broken, there will be only two hours of post-cloture debate, as opposed to 30 hours, because nominations don't have amendments that need to be debated.
And there are changes to the Senate rules more broadly, too. Holds can no longer be secret, and the minority gets the right to offer at least three germane amendments on every bill (which addresses the Republican complaint that they are often denied the opportunity to offer amendments).
That's it. What's notable about this reform package is its restraint. Compare it to Sen. Bill Frist's effort to end the filibuster against judicial nominees. That would have immediately resulted in a slew of Republican judges being named to lifelong terms on various courts. If these changes are enacted ... nothing happens. There's no bill that's currently bottled up but will suddenly be viable after these reforms finish. They would take place with a Republican House, and even if they didn't, they wouldn't change the relevant impediment to the passage of legislation, which is that cloture is set at three-fifths of the Senate.
For better or for worse, this isn't a power grab. It's a protest. It's Democrats saying that something is wrong with how the filibuster has been used in recent years but stopping well short of weakening the filibuster itself. The Senate we would see if these rules passed would be quite similar to the Senate we see today. The differences would be that senators who place a hold would have to admit that they'd placed a hold, the minority party would have more opportunity to offer amendments and, if the majority party chose to keep a bill on the floor despite a filibuster, the filibuster would require more floor debate.
Plenty of people will fight for this as if the Senate depended on it, and plenty of others will battle it as if democracy itself were at stake. But the reality is undoubtedly more modest. This will make the Senate work a little bit more smoothly, and a little bit more like Americans think it works, with filibusters requiring debate, holds requiring names and minorities being guaranteed opportunities to amend legislation. It's a good package. But if you believe that the body's slow transformation into an institution requiring supermajorities to agree on every piece of business is the problem, this doesn't solve it. The best you can say for it on that measure is that it puts everyone on notice that if the filibuster continues being overused, a future Senate could, if they wanted, eliminate or more substantially reform it.
| January 5, 2011; 12:57 PM ET
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