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Democratic Trio Introduces Package of Senate Rules Changes

Updated: 9:37 p.m.

Senate Democrats kicked off their push to change Senate filibuster rules by formally unveiling a proposal on Wednesday to eliminate some types of filibusters, while guaranteeing amendment rights to the minority.

Sens. Tom Udall (N.M.), Jeff Merkley (Ore.) and Tom Harkin (Iowa) introduced a resolution to eliminate Senators’ ability to block a bill from coming to the floor for debate. In exchange, both the minority and majority would be guaranteed the ability to offer three amendments each, provided the proposals were germane to the underlying bill. 

Currently, 60 votes are needed to beat back a filibuster, or invoke cloture, on bills, nominations and procedural motions, including motions to proceed, which allow the Senate to begin debate on a measure. Under the Udall-Merkley-Harkin proposal, debate on motions to proceed would be limited to two hours.

The resolution would also attempt to re-impose the “talking filibuster” by forcing Members to stay on the floor if they object to a bill or nomination. If the Senate failed to produce 60 votes for cloture, the Senators who successfully filibustered would be required to hold the floor as long as the measure continued to be the pending business before the chamber. If they left the floor before the Majority Leader moved on to other business, cloture would automatically be invoked and a vote on final passage would be held 30 hours later.

A bill introduced Wednesday by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) would also re-impose the talking filibuster. Lautenberg’s “Mr. Smith bill” — named after the movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” which features a filibuster — would allow the Senate to move to an immediate vote if debate ceases or if Senators conducting the filibuster give up the floor after a cloture motion has been filed. He first introduced it in the 111th Congress.

The Udall-Merkley-Harkin proposal would also prohibit one Senator from objecting on behalf of another Senator — an attempt to end the practice of secret, or anonymous, holds on legislation and nominees. Once a filibuster had been broken on a nomination, opponents would have only two hours to debate before a final vote would be called.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has not endorsed the package, given that Democrats have yet to coalesce around a specific proposal. However, he kicked off debate on the issue Wednesday by saying he supports some rules changes “to make sure the Senate can operate in a way that allows the people’s elected legislators to legislate.”

He pointed to the Republicans’ record of setting blockades before legislation and nominations over the past four years.

“The current system has been abused and abused gratuitously. The filibuster, in particular, has been abused in truly unprecedented fashion,” Reid said.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) responded by saying Republicans have been forced to block legislation in order to preserve their right to offer amendments.

“The current majority has denied the minority the right to amend legislation a record 44 times, or more often than the last six majorities combined,” McConnell said.

He also questioned Democrats’ rationale for pursuing the rules changes, noting that Reid and others have heralded their own abilities to overcome filibusters in the past two years.

“The president, the former Speaker, the Majority Leader have all described this past Congress as the most successful in memory, and yet the most vocal elements of their party remain frustrated,” McConnell said.

Even in his speech on the floor Wednesday, Reid noted that academics and pundits have said the 111th Congress “was the most productive in American history.”

And Reid set a record in the 111th Congress for breaking more filibusters, 69 percent, than any other past Majority Leader, according to a recent Roll Call analysis.

Reid has set in motion a procedural maneuver that would allow him to hold open the first “legislative day” of the Senate for more than two weeks, as a way to prompt discussion and negotiations on the rules proposals.

Senate Democrats have threatened to invoke their alleged right to change Senate rules by 51 votes, rather than the 67 votes traditionally needed; however, the majority has yet to produce a rules change proposal that has the support of 51 Senators.

Republicans counter that no rules changes have ever been agreed to without the minority’s assent, despite a 1975 precedent that Democrats have referenced.

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