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Will Playing Nice Pay Off for GOP in Filibuster Fight?

Arizona Sen. John McCain served as a voice of reason on the Senate floor last week, seeking compromises from Democrats while imploring fellow Republicans to set a good example and help deflate Democratic cries to alter filibuster rules.

McCain, ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said Nov. 29 that he and Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., made a conscious decision to prove to others that the Senate can still function without cutting off some avenues for filibusters in January. Levin has been a vocal critic of deploying the “constitutional” or “nuclear” option to change the Senate rules with a simple-majority vote next January, as Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., may attempt.

“The senator from Michigan and I had two goals in mind: one, to achieve conclusion of the defense authorization bill, which is vital to our national security on which I think we would all agree,” McCain said on the floor. “But we also wanted to show our colleagues, and maybe the country, that we could move forward in a normal fashion with legislation, amendments, and final votes without cloture motions, without blocking things, without objecting to other people’s amendments.”

The comment came in the middle of a standoff between Sens. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., about an amendment that Coburn wanted to offer about access to firearms by veterans with mental health issues. Schumer would not permit an agreement to grant Coburn a vote on that measure. McCain criticized Schumer for blocking the vote but encouraged his colleagues to move forward nonetheless.

Republicans, such as Sen. Marco Rubio, generally liked the example of comity, even without the messaging votes that they sometimes seek to offer.

“In essence, the Senate would work better if we had more bills like we have now, where everyone got to file their amendments, the managers got to work through it and figure out which ones they wanted to let a vote on, and so forth,” the Florida Republican said. “I think it just works better. That’s what we came here to do.”

The work on the fiscal 2013 defense authorization (S 3254), which is on track to pass the Senate for the 51st consecutive year, represents how senators in both parties would like the Senate to operate. There was skepticism that one or two good weeks, or even passage of the defense bill in the days ahead, would change Reid’s plans, however.

“They’re going to do what they’re going to do,” Sen. Richard M. Burr, R-N.C., said. “What we do isn’t going to influence that, but the Senate historically is a body — regardless of party — where everything’s debatable and everything’s voted on,” he said. “We’ve got to get back to that.”

While Republican senators have said there’s no formal effort to keep their colleagues from making full use of their institutional prerogatives, those most prone to use procedural devices that meddle with Reid have been lured away from procedural mischief, at least for now.

Coburn, for instance, relented and allowed other amendments to proceed last week after Schumer’s objection.

In another example, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., backed off his threat to hold up action after making a lot of noise about an amendment he wanted to offer that would require jury trials for Americans detained in terrorism investigations. That generated vociferous opposition from some fellow Republicans, including McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

Paul had held up proceeding to the bill, but Reid was not forced to file a motion to limit debate on that. Instead, Paul worked with several other senators, including Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and GOP Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, on an alternative. The Senate easily adopted that amendment during debate Nov. 29.

During that debate, Graham called the terrorism suspects detained at the U.S. Naval Station at Guantànamo Bay, Cuba, “crazy bastards,” which Paul ridiculed.

“I don’t really think that if we’re going to have a crazy-bastard standard that we shouldn’t have a right to trial by jury, because if we’re going to lock up all the crazy bastards, for goodness sakes — would you not want if you’re a crazy bastard to have a right to trial by jury?” Paul said.

On the issue of avoiding a confrontation in January, however, Rules and Administration ranking member Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said it could all come down to Reid.

“Sen. Reid said that changing the rules with 51 votes, the nuclear option, would destroy the Senate. He said it in 2005 and 2006 when Republicans were trying to do it. He was exactly right about that,” Alexander said, in reference to the debate over whether then-Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., should use procedural tools to eliminate filibusters of judicial nominations. “I don’t think he wants to go down in history as the majority leader who destroyed the Senate.”

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