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Democrats Hopeful About Changing Filibuster Rules

After being beat back by their own leaders two years ago, rank-and-file Democratic senators are newly optimistic about the prospect that Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., will move ahead with a filibuster overhaul at the start of the new Congress.

Just how to do it remains a subject of much debate, but many of the proposals could drastically restrict the minority’s current rights to block almost anything that comes to the Senate floor.

Reid was a latecomer to the effort to change the rules to reduce time-consuming procedural hurdles that the minority often throws up to delay or block agenda items, but he’s been sufficiently vague about his intentions and left himself plenty of wiggle room. Still, New Mexico Democratic Sen. Tom Udall, who has led the filibuster overhaul effort with Oregon Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley, said in a Monday interview that he was “very encouraged to see that Leader Reid came out the day after the election.” He added that he has had a number of private conversations with Reid about the way forward.

Indeed, Reid commented earlier this year that he was “wrong” to reject filibuster changes in favor of an informal “gentlemen’s agreement” with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. And in his first post-election press conference, Reid planted himself firmly in the filibuster overhaul camp, vowing, “We’re going to make it so that we can get things done.”

Udall said ideas still being discussed include cutting down on the procedural steps required to get bills into conference committees with the House, limiting debate on motions to proceed and requiring what advocates call the “talking filibuster.” Under that plan, senators objecting would have to stay on the floor and actively debate to keep the Senate from moving forward with votes. All could eliminate the 60-vote threshold currently required for such procedures.

Several Democrats, including Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, have indicated the talking filibuster has momentum in the caucus.

On Monday, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., told MSNBC, “If those senators are held accountable by making them actually stand and filibuster, it would make a difference. The American people will see it.”

In current practice, a senator’s office would need to only contact leadership staff to prevent a measure or motion from moving forward under unanimous consent. After an objection is registered, the majority leader would have to file cloture, wait another day and then produce 60 votes in favor of limiting debate.

The “talking filibuster” proposal would require opposition senators to hold the floor after a cloture motion received majority vote but failed to achieve the 60 votes needed to limit debate under the current rules. If the senators gave up control of the floor, there would be a process for ending debate without needing the supermajority currently required. Senate aides said how that would happen remains under discussion.

Udall said he was not sure what form a limit on debating motions to proceed might take, but he seemed open to the idea of allowing a fixed number of hours to talk about the motion before the chamber moves to a simple-majority vote on taking up the measure.

Under current rules, a senator opposing a move to go to conference can force a series of cloture votes. Because it would take more than a week to jump over all of them, leaders often opt for an informal method of volleying bills between the House and Senate, sometimes known as “ping pong,” to avoid the Senate floor bottleneck.

Republicans are concerned that Reid will use a procedural maneuver at the start of the new Congress to change the rules with a simple-majority vote, citing the constitutional authority that the body has to determine its own rules, rather than following the rules of prior sessions of the Senate. Generally, a two-thirds majority is required to limit debate on rules changes.

Reid pledged to oppose the procedural maneuver — a nuclear option — for the current Congress and the one that begins in January as part of the “gentlemen’s agreement” from January 2011.

But one senior Democratic aide said Reid considers that agreement essentially null and void. Part of that agreement called for Republicans to generally avoid blocking motions to proceed to legislation, but that has happened many times this Congress.

Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., criticized the possible changes in a Heritage Foundation blog post last week.

“Leader Reid is creating the illusion of a problem to justify drastic, unprecedented action to deprive Republicans of the ability to debate and amend legislation,” DeMint wrote.

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