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Junior Senators Promote Change to Filibuster Rules

Senate Democrats are struggling to build consensus on their filibuster reform goals, with the Caucus’ junior members hosting a talk-a-thon to convince veterans to get on board.

“Today we do not have 51 Senators. I’m not just [talking to] Democrats or Republicans, but we’re building momentum,” said Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), one of several Senators pushing for changes to filibuster rules.

Udall’s comments came after a lengthy caucus meeting Wednesday, during which Members discussed an array of topics, including whether and how to pursue a filibuster overhaul.

Some Senators are unconvinced. “I’m not really supportive of changing the filibuster rules,” Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) said. “We do need to become more efficient, and the ways our rules are set up is if you get a belligerent minority, they can use the rules to bring the place to a halt.”

Nearly half a dozen Democrats have put forth plans to cut away at a Senator’s ability to stall action on legislation or nominations via tactics known as filibustering, and each was explored in a series of Rules and Administration hearings this year. Republicans widely criticized those plans, but Democrats found their first GOP supporter last week when Sen.-elect Dan Coats (Ind.) indicated his interest.

The Hoosier, who served in the chamber in the 1990s and is returning for a second stint, has already been in talks with Udall. “We’re in the middle of a lot of good discussion,” Coats said.

“I’m just trying to get a more transparent process in place that keep minority rights but also allows the majority to move,” he said.

Most Democrats agree filibusters on procedural motions should be eliminated; the sticking point is how to accomplish such a change. A two-thirds vote is required to limit debate on a proposed change in Senate rules, but Udall contends that new rules can be adopted at the start of Congress by a simple majority, a tactic he calls the “Constitutional option.”

More senior Senators caution that using the Constitutional option sets a dangerous precedent for changing Senate procedure. The Senators, including those who have served in the minority, are warning their colleagues not to make any drastic moves they might regret after the next election cycle.

Filibuster rules were last changed in 1975, when Sen. Walter Mondale (D-Minn.) steered a change that lowered the number of votes needed to break a filibuster from 67 to 60. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), a junior Senator at the time, said Mondale also wanted to do away with filibusters on motions to proceed but decided against it.

“I think he would have loved to have had a change at that time on the motion to proceed,” said Leahy, who still supports filibuster reform. “But then you did rely on grown-ups in leadership to keep the caucuses in line. Now, it’s being abused and it’s unfortunate.”

Leahy, as Judiciary chairman and a long-serving Member, adds weight to the junior Senators’ mission, but other senior Senators urge caution. Retiring Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) has advised against diminishing the role of the filibuster in the chamber, charging that it is a useful tool for the minority party.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said the same and further added that Democrats should focus more on economic policy than parochial Senate procedure. “I think all these other things are interesting, but not until we’ve done jobs, jobs, jobs,” Nelson said.

The junior class is pressing ahead, offering an even broader list of rules changes for the chamber to consider. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) has led a revolt against secret holds and is pressing Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to bring her bill up for a vote before the end of the year.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said the group wants to see “accelerated votes” on sub-Cabinet and district court nominees. The issue of stalled nominations has aggravated the Democratic Conference all year, and Senators such as Whitehouse charge that such delays waste floor time and deny an administration key advisers and policy experts. 

Members will meet again Thursday for a caucus meeting, in which the agenda for the lame-duck session and next year will be discussed. Rules changes are expected to come up, but an agreement on any plan is unlikely.

“Everyone is getting tired and heading toward decision-making, but they’re not there yet,” a Democratic aide said.

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