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Harkin Offers Little Hope for Filibuster Reform

Sen. Tom Harkin, who is pushing for the Senate to adopt new rules to limit the use of the filibuster, acknowledged Wednesday that he will likely have to settle for “a little bit of window dressing.” 

“I want my legacy to be that I did everything possible to try to end minority rule in the Senate, and I believe this is the way to do it,” Harkin told reporters after participating in a panel discussion about filibuster reform sponsored by Common Cause.

The Iowan is one of several Democrats working to put together a package of rules changes for the Senate to consider at the opening of the next Congress. The group has yet to coalesce behind any set of proposals, however, and changing the rules governing the filibuster remains the most controversial. 

“What I’m fearful of, knowing how this place works, is that we’ll come down to some minor fixes that still won’t prevent the minority from stopping everything,” Harkin said. 

Harkin said the 60-vote threshold required to break a filibuster is out-of-date and grinds the Senate to a halt. He has a proposal to lower the number of votes required to end a filibuster and is in talks with several other Democrats to determine how to pass rules reform next year. But Harkin and other reform advocates, including Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), acknowledge they do not have a majority of caucus members behind any specific changes, although they hope to make progress Thursday at the Democrats’ caucus meeting. Other rules changes being discussed include requiring a Senator to be present on the floor to sustain a filibuster and eliminating secret holds on bills.

Republicans are beginning to engage in the debate in an attempt to persuade enough Democrats not to support lowering the number of votes needed to break a filibuster. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell met with a handful of Democrats on Tuesday to discuss possible rules changes. The Kentucky Republican, GOP Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) and Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) met with Democratic Sens. Mark Warner (Va.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.) and Benjamin Cardin (Md.) in an apparent attempt to head off a battle over rules. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was also invited but had a scheduling conflict, sources said. 

“Fireworks sometimes have a way of being dimmed down,” Harkin said, noting the bipartisan meeting. “Right now I know there’s talks going on with Republicans and Democrats about some changes so we don’t get to that point. I feel very strongly, and I feel we have a large group of us that feel very strongly that we’ve got to get over that threshold.”