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Democrats Consider ‘Tweaks’ to Filibuster, Not Overhaul

Senate Democrats made little headway Friday on how or whether to change Senate rules to make it easier to move legislation through the chamber next year, and it was becoming increasingly clear that major changes to filibuster rules do not have the necessary support in the caucus to prevail.

Sen. Ben Nelson emerged from a special caucus to discuss rules changes saying the party had moved away from proposals to eliminate the minority’s ability to prevent a bill from even being debated on the floor. In early discussions, Democrats had talked of getting rid of the filibuster of motions to proceed to legislation.

“I just don’t see that there are enough votes,” the Nebraska Democrat said.

Democrats would need 51 of their 53 Members next year to agree to such a change in order to prevail.

Instead, the party is considering what Nelson described as “tweaks” to filibuster rules, “but important ones.” Nelson has urged caution in any rules changes, given they could set off a partisan brawl with Republicans or harm future Democratic efforts to block the priorities of a potential GOP majority.

“I don’t know that I’m a traditionalist, but I do think that you have to be very cautious with the rules changes,” Nelson said.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, who has pushed for changes to filibuster rules, agreed. “There’s not much appetite for eliminating the filibuster entirely,” but the caucus has not made any decisions on a path forward, the Rhode Island Democrat said.

Two proposals under consideration include a new requirement that filibustering Senators be present on the floor in order to hold up bills and a suggestion to shorten the amount of time between a vote to kill a filibuster and the chamber’s ability to move forward with the bill. The winners of cloture votes to end filibuster must wait 30 hours before moving forward with the next phase of debate or a final vote, unless the Senator who objects to the bill agrees to waive that time limit.

Democrats have been struggling this week to come up with a consensus proposal to change Senate rules, even as time appears to be running out on their ability to effect the changes they desire. Democrats need to have a concrete proposal by the time the 112th Congress convenes on Jan. 5 if they want to take advantage of a 1970s precedent, in which the chamber’s filibuster rules were changed by a simple majority vote. Otherwise, rules changes require a 67-vote majority.

Sen. Mark Begich, who has helped lead the effort among junior Members to change Senate rules, acknowledged that Jan. 5 is the deadline for action, but said Democrats are using this lame duck to work it out.

“We’ve got time still ahead of us, and we’re still going to go through these discussions,” the Alaska Democrat said, noting the goal is to “make sure [the rules] keep the agenda moving forward.”

The divide among Democrats comes from junior Members who are seeking changes and more experienced Senators who fear the slippery slope they may be creating for future majorities.

“You start doing that every Congress to change the rules of this place, you lose any consistency in this institution,” retiring Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) said. “You have to have been in the minority to appreciate the ability to be able to stop something. Unfortunately, a lot of these people haven’t spent a day inside the minority. They have no idea what it’s like to watch a train coming at you.”

Meanwhile, Republican leaders have asked rank-and-file Members to have unofficial discussions with Democrats about their desire to change Senate rules, in an effort to discourage them from making any radical moves that might eviscerate the filibuster, according to a GOP source.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) went so far as to invite several Democrats to his office earlier this week to discuss any potential rules changes that might diminish his party’s ability to stall action in the Senate.

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