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Filibuster Reform Reduced to Crumbs

 
 
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 Senators have been quietly deliberating for weeks over how (and whether) to reform the way the chamber does business, and there were at least some hints of progress. Yesterday, those hopes were dashed altogether.

On the table was a modest-but-meaningful package of changes crafted by Democratic Sens. Udall, Harkin, and Merkley, which included, among other things, measures on expediting motions to proceed, ending secret holds, and requiring "talking" filibusters.

As of yesterday afternoon, the reform push was just about dead. Advocates won't end the process completelyempty handed, but the final agreement reduces reforms to mere crumbs.

Democratic advocates of an overhaul of Senate rules to curb the filibuster abandoned that effort on Wednesday, clearing the way for a bipartisan agreement to institute less sweeping changes to ease procedural gridlock.

After a lengthy meeting with their colleagues and clear signs that they lacked the votes to try to force through new restrictions on the filibuster, the lawmakers -- Senators Tom Udall of New Mexico, Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Tom Harkin of Iowa -- said they would relent now but press their case over the long term.

 

 

That sounds reasonable -- think long-term, take incremental gains -- but it's worth emphasizing that future opportunities are unpredictable. Coming on the heels of Senate Republicans engaging in some of the most outrageous abuses in Senate history, there was arguably no better time than now to make much-needed improvements. Nevertheless, this opening has apparently closed.

One of the key remaining elements to the debate was the "Constitutional option," which reformers hoped to take advantage of. The idea was to force Senate changes through by simple majority-rule, exploiting a process that allows members to write their rules for the session on the first day of the new Congress. It was a complicated move -- involving an objection to the previous rules, a favorable ruling from Vice President Biden, and a series of "point of order" objections -- but having this on the table was supposed to give reformers at least a modicum of leverage.

This week, the "Constitutional option" was scrapped, in part because Democratic leaders weren't prepared to leave the chamber paralyzed indefinitely, and in part because it wasn't entirely clear whether the 51 votes were there even if it were tried.

So, what are we left with? The agreement reached this week all but eliminates secret holds, and reducing the number of executive branch nominees needing Senate confirmation by about 400.

There's also something called "the gentlemen's agreement," which apparently involves an informal deal -- Democratic leaders have said they'll allow Republicans to offer more amendments on more bills, and Republicans have said they'll block fewer bills from coming to the Senate floor. Whether the "agreement" will hold, and for how long, is unclear.

If you're watching the Senate floor today, votes are expected on the more meaningful reform proposal -- including the "talking" filibuster -- but no one, including proponents, expects them to generate the necessary 67 votes. The votes are more about raising the visibility of the issue, and getting members on record.

 

Washington Monthly / By Steve Benen

Posted at January 27, 2011, 5:23am

 
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