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New GOP Obstruction Threat May Boost Filibuster Reform

First-term Senate Democrats angling to overhaul filibuster rules got an unexpected boost Wednesday after Republicans announced a legislative blockade during the lame-duck session.

The group of junior Members, elected in 2006 and 2008, presented a host of rules changes to their colleagues during a lengthy caucus meeting Wednesday. While no consensus was reached on any one plan, a Democratic aide noted that the latest GOP obstruction tactic “got a few folks out of the locker room.”

Democrats were riled after all 42 Senate Republicans sent a letter to Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Wednesday morning declaring that they would stall action on all legislation until the chamber passes an extension of Bush-era tax cuts for all income brackets and a continuing resolution to fund the government another 10 months. The junior Democrats seized on the opportunity to reiterate their case for clamping down on the use of filibusters, which are tactics that enable Senators to stall action on legislation or nominations.

A few veteran lawmakers, including Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), have warmed to the idea of doing away with the filibuster on the motion to proceed to a bill or nomination.

Levin contends that such filibusters are being abused. For instance, he says nominations have been filibustered not because of objections over the nominee, but because the tactic eats up time that could be used to work on other legislation.

“You know how many times we have judges out here where there’s opposition on a motion to proceed, and three days of nothing, empty space and sound, it’s 99 to nothing on the motion to proceed. Then it’s 99 to nothing after another two days on that judge,” he lamented. “Why do we waste a week? Because they’re thwarting the opportunity to debate something.”

Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) gave presentations to their colleagues during Wednesday’s caucus meeting. Some ideas were related to the filibuster, while other suggestions included integrating the parties in their seat assignments on the floor and expediting votes on nominations.

Rules reform has become a pet issue for junior Members, who are frustrated with stall tactics on the floor and campaigned in their home states to change the way Washington operates. While the group has caught the attention of their senior colleagues and consumed nearly an entire caucus luncheon with discussion of their ideas, a path forward to enact any proposals remains unclear. 

“I think it’s a good discussion we’re having,” Merkley said when asked whether consensus was being reached.

Wednesday’s momentum came in stark contrast to Tuesday, when retiring Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) delivered an extended farewell address, imploring his junior colleagues not to take up rules reform next year. The veteran lawmaker issued a similar plea privately to the group in August.

“I certainly share some of my colleagues’ anger with the repetitive use and abuse of the filibuster. Thus, I can understand the temptation to change the rules,” the Connecticut Democrat said Tuesday in his farewell on the Senate floor. “But whether such a temptation is motivated by a noble desire to speed up the legislative process, or by pure political expedience, I believe such changes would be unwise.”

Despite Dodd’s stern warning, some veterans have rallied to the cause. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), a longtime advocate of filibuster reform, called Dodd’s speech “a nice trip down nostalgia lane.” Levin, whose defense authorization bill has been thwarted by threats of stalling tactics in the lame duck, is also a strong supporter.

Most Senate Democrats seem to agree that filibusters on procedural motions should be eliminated, but 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 some Members contend that new rules can be adopted at the start of the next Congress by a simple majority, a tactic dubbed the “Constitutional option.” More senior Senators caution that using the technique could set a dangerous precedent for changing Senate procedure.

“I include myself in the category of people who have thought a lot about it but have had to listen to a lot of compelling arguments on both sides,” Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) said of the ongoing debate. “I’m one of those people still considering all the arguments, but I think we made a lot of progress but I can’t say we’ve come to any conclusion.”

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