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Harry Reid Raises Prospect of Filibuster Curb

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid signaled today that he would like to limit the ability of Senators to filibuster procedural motions to take up legislation on the floor.

Altering Senate rules to limit filibusters would be difficult, but the Nevada Democrat told colleagues that “If there were anything that ever needed changing in this body, it’s the filibuster rule, because it’s been abused, abused.”

Reid’s comments came as he filed a motion to limit debate on taking up a House-passed reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank. Republicans would not agree to the motion to proceed unless they were permitted to offer amendments to the legislation.

First-term Democratic Sens. Tom Udall (N.M.) and Jeff Merkley (Ore.) led an unsuccessful effort in January 2011 for rules changes including a prohibition against filibusters on motions to proceed to legislation. The proposed changes, which included contributions from veteran Democrat Sen. Tom Harkin (Iowa), would also have required public identification of Senators who place holds on legislation or nominations, limited post-cloture debate on nominations and forced Senators who attempt to block legislation by filibustering to hold the floor with marathon speeches such as the one the character played by Jimmy Stewart delivered in the movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”

“These two young, fine Senators said it was time to change the rules of the Senate, and we didn’t. They were right. The rest of us were wrong — or most of us, anyway — what a shame,” Reid said.

Reid did not outline specific proposals today, but the timing of his comments made it clear that he would favor eliminating filibusters of motions to start debating bills.

Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) made similar comments Wednesday during floor debate on a motion to proceed to a bill that would block a scheduled increase in interest rates for federally backed student loans. “It would strike me that if someone wants to stop the consideration of a bill before the Senate, they ought to park their posterior in one of these chairs and be prepared to take on all comers to explain why,” Durbin said. “If they don’t have the time or inclination to do it, then for goodness’ sake, don’t start a filibuster.”

But some other Democrats are more cautious about proposals to curb filibusters. Speaking on the floor Wednesday about the GOP primary defeat of Sen. Dick Lugar (Ind.), Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) suggested that rules changes would not be necessary if the traditional comity of the chamber returned.

“Every great moment in this great institution, when people look back at the history with pride and point to the Missouri Compromise or point to Henry Clay or Daniel Webster or all these great Senators — or Ted Kennedy more recently and others on the other side of the aisle — when they do that, they are talking about people who operated by the same rules but found the common ground because they had the intelligence and willpower to put the country and its interests ahead of everything else,” Kerry said.

Changing Senate rules requires a two-thirds majority vote — a very high hurdle. But Reid has shown a willingness to use procedural steps to curb what he views as dilatory tactics. Last August, Reid used a variation of the “nuclear option” to change a procedural rule. The change barred Senators from using motions to suspend the rules to get around a prohibition against Senators offering nongermane amendments after cloture is invoked.

The proposal by Merkley and Udall ran into procedural hurdles that supporters had not anticipated, and Reid ultimately negotiated a narrower package of changes. Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) also entered into a gentlemen’s agreement intended to reduce the number of filibusters on motions to proceed in exchange for the ability to offer at least some amendments.

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