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Senate Democrats Far From Deal on Changing Chamber Rules

Senate Democrats continued to struggle Thursday with whether and how to change rules for the chamber as well as their own caucus, and they plan to hold another meeting on the issue Friday afternoon.

Senators acknowledged that time is running short if the weakened Democratic majority wants to use a precedent that would allow them to change the rules by a simple majority vote. Junior Democrats are intent on revising filibuster rules and other ways to restrict the minority’s right to delay action on legislation.

Senators emerged from a nearly three-hour caucus saying they heard presentations on how to change internal caucus rules, but they have not yet begun to hear concrete proposals for changing Senate rules.

“It’s an Old Bull versus new bull mentality,” one senior Senate Democratic aide said. It has been difficult to persuade longer-serving Members who have experienced life in the minority to support the radical changes to filibuster rules.

Still, the aide said, “the fact that they’re still talking about this is a sign that they’re trying to find a solidified caucus position.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said the caucus would meet again Friday to take up that topic. “We’re working on that,” he said.

But Sen. Mark Pryor and others acknowledged the caucus is running out of time to rally behind filibuster reform.

“You have to do that in early January. I guess it’s not actually written in stone, but you’ve pretty much got to do it,” the Arkansas Democrat said. “There’s some pressure to put something together and see what it would look like.”

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) agreed the caucus needs to come up with a proposal “soon.”

If they don’t adhere to a precedent set in the 1970s, in which the Senate changed its rules with a simple majority vote at the beginning of the Congress, Democrats will likely be forced to abandon their efforts. Rules changes otherwise typically take 67 votes to pass, and there will only be 53 members of the Democratic caucus next year.

However, Democrats do not yet appear close to backing any one proposal or set of rules changes for floor consideration.

“I don’t have a great feel for what the caucus wants to do. I get mixed signals,” Pryor said. “I think I’ll know by the end of the week where people are on that.”

The two-term Democrat added that the caucus was more easily coming to consensus on a set of changes to its own rules for next year. Pryor noted that last year, Reid asked Members holding three or more committee and subcommittee gavels to give up at least one to make room for more junior Members. Pryor described the shift as “a very friendly change.”

“The caucus changes are a lot easier, because that’s just a majority of the caucus,” Pryor said. “There’s no partisan ulterior motive to speak of. They’re not nearly as hard as Senate rules changes.”

Sen. Benjamin Cardin, who has taken a leading role in discussions on caucus rules, predicted that changes won’t be adopted until January. The Maryland Democrat described the ongoing talks as “a way to get our rules up to date.”

Junior Democrats from the classes of 2006 and 2008 have been agitating over the past year for changes to caucus rules that would prevent senior Members from hoarding committee and subcommittee gavels, for example. They have also proposed electing chairmen, rather than adhering to the seniority system.

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