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Changes to Senate Rules Fall Short of Drastic Proposals

The Senate voted to agree to two changes to the chamber’s rules Thursday, three weeks after the session was officially gaveled open.

The votes were part of a bipartisan deal on the rules announced by Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Thursday morning. But with only seven seats separating the majority from the minority, it was clear that the party leaders were intently focused on the future.

The two resolutions eliminate “secret” holds on nominations and waive the reading of amendments that have been publicly available for at least 72 hours. They easily surpassed the 60-vote threshold required for adoption.

Three other resolutions to change the rules regarding filibusters, or procedures that have been used to block or slow down the legislative process, were rejected Thursday. Those measures would have reduced the vote threshold for ending a filibuster after further debate, ended the use of filibusters to block legislation from coming to the Senate floor, and required Senators to hold the floor in order to continue a filibuster. They needed the support of two-thirds of Senators present and voting in order to pass.

Reid said the two approved changes corrected processes that were being abused and would lead to a more open Senate floor. Change to the Senate’s rules “doesn’t happen very often, and it happened today,” Reid told reporters after the votes ended. “That’s extremely important to the Senate.”

In a colloquy Thursday morning, Reid and McConnell agreed not to use a controversial option for changing the rules by a simple majority vote, rather than the 67 votes traditionally needed, “in this or the next Congress.”

The “constitutional option” could only be exercised on the first legislative day of the session. Reid had bought more time by using a procedural maneuver to carry over the first day, but he agreed Tuesday to end the day.

Majority Whip Dick Durbin said the possibility of Democrats losing the majority in the 2012 elections was a factor in agreeing not to invoke the option.

“One of the motivating factors was you have to anticipate what’s going to happen in the next election,” the Illinois Democrat said. “If we pick up seats or if we lose them, and if we lose the majority, how would the Republicans treat us?

“The nature of the Senate is to try to anticipate, if the tables were turned, what it means,” Durbin added. “And that’s why I think the assurance from McConnell and from Reid is important that we maintain at least that understanding and that gentlemen’s agreement.”

Sen. John Cornyn, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said it was wise for both parties to look down the electoral road. “What goes around comes around here,” the Texas Republican said.

“I would say that [Democrats] realize that there’s a good chance they’re going to find themselves in the minority, and so what they’re asking for is if the rules are going to apply one way when they’re in the majority, that they’ll be applied the same way if Republicans are in the majority,” he added. “That’s not an unreasonable request.”

The votes on the resolutions follow weeks of work on rules proposals and committee ratios.

Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) had led a group of junior lawmakers eager to drastically change the chamber’s rules via the constitutional option, and Harkin and Merkley expressed disappointment Thursday.

A demoralized Harkin said during closing debate that he doesn’t fear voters or the ballot box. “What I fear is that this Senate will continue to be dysfunctional,” said the longtime proponent of changes to filibuster rules.

Merkley pointed out progress after the votes. “While I’m disappointed that stronger rules reforms did not pass today, we have come a long way in a very short time,” he said in a statement. He added that they will continue to build support “to restore deliberation to this chamber.”

Senate Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.), who helped negotiate the agreement with Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), said that Democrats did not get everything they wanted and that there was more to be done.

“I believe in the talking filibuster,” he said, referring to the resolution offered by Merkley that would have required a Senator to hold the floor during a filibuster. “I think that the basic view on both sides of the aisle was that the traditions of the Senate should not be undone with a snap of the fingers.”