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Posted at 12:02 PM ET, 02/ 3/2011

What's next for Senate reform?

By Jonathan Bernstein

Is Senate reform really dead? Filibuster expert Greg Koger had an important post over at the Monkey Cage yesterday arguing that, far from being a disaster for reformers, the demise of New Mexico Democratic Sen. Tom Udall's "constitutional option" at the beginning of the current Congress may wind up pushing Democrats to adopt a much better path to badly needed changes.

Briefly, there are three ways on the table to change Senate rules. To actually change those rules as written, Senators would need a large (two-thirds) supermajority, which is highly unlikely unless the minority party was afraid of one of the other two methods, each of which would impose simple majority rule in some way. The Udall plan would allow majorities do so in order to change the written rules, but only on the first day of a new Senate. However, as Koger says, rather than seeking change by altering the formal rules of the Senate, what majorities can do at any time is to change the interpretations of those rules. Koger:

A simpler and more direct approach is to directly impose reforms by precedent, or to use the threat of majoritarian reforms to bring the minority party to the bargaining table.

Koger argues that the deal between Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell would still leave room for this approach. I'm not sure whether Reid and McConnell would agree...yet (and see the slightly different views of congressional rules expect Steven Smith). The strength of this approach, however, is that it is fully up to the majority to decide at what point minority obstruction is just too much. Right now, the plan seems to be for both sides to exercise restraint: for Republicans to avoid additional delay for delay's sake, but for Democrats to allow Republicans to offer more amendments, and to accept the true 60-vote Senate that didn't really exist before 2009. If Democrats eventually believe that GOP obstruction has broken the spirit of the agreement (as they likely will), then at any point Reid can simply say that it's void, and threaten to use "reform by precedent" to get things moving again.

In my view, the true 60-vote Senate is not going to prove stable in the long run, and the Senate will eventually either have to find some new set of rules and procedures that empower individuals, minority parties, and majority parties (here's my suggestion) -- or else it will wind up as a simple majority-party rule institution, like the House. It's possible, with the lower stakes for majority rule in the Senate that come with divided government, that the Reid-McConnell agreement might hold for at least the next two years. But I wouldn't count on it -- and reformers should keep pushing and keep working on devising good proposals, because there's every chance that the opportunity for change will happen much sooner than the Reid-McConnell agreement would have us believe.

By Jonathan Bernstein  | February 3, 2011; 12:02 PM ET
Categories:  Senate Dems, filibuster  
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Next: For the GOP, there's no putting the `repeal' genie back in the bottle


Wait for 2012. The Senate will have a successful reformation. It will be mostly Republican. Obama will either be gone or taken hostage by Republicans like Clinton was in 1994-2000.

Posted by: battleground51 | February 3, 2011 12:26 PM | Report abuse

The trick, for liberals, is to find a new set of rules that will empower liberals to totally frustrate Republicans when Republicans have most of the power, which is most of the time, and will completely disempower Republicans on those rare occasions when Democrats (aka liberals} hold most of the power, over the people, so that even with very limited time to wield most of the power, liberals will have much more influence over American affairs than they are entitled to.

It's an evil and diabolical plan. If Obamacrats somehow manage it, all is lost!

Posted by: battleground51 | February 3, 2011 12:41 PM | Report abuse

I am hoping that the next Senate reformation reforms that toothless, old RINO, Richard Lugar right outta town.

Lugar is worse than useless. He may as well be an Obamacrat. Maybe he's a closet Obamaphile. Sick!!!

Posted by: battleground51 | February 3, 2011 12:52 PM | Report abuse

Sorry John but with all that's going on, I'm surprised you'd pick such a snoozer of a topic. And with all these words:

"Is/may/highly unlikely/I'm not sure/seems/In my view/It's possible/"

the whole thing reads like a bunch of speculation.

At least we didn't get another health care article which only inside the beltway people and Fox are talking about.

Posted by: mikefromArlington | February 3, 2011 1:46 PM | Report abuse

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