Frustrations With Senate Rules Near Boiling Point

Senators who negotiated shutdown end broach rule changes

Sens. James Lankford of Oklahoma, left, and Roy Blunt of Missouri could be instrumental in convincing their colleagues to change Senate rules to make it easier to consider legislation. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Sens. James Lankford of Oklahoma, left, and Roy Blunt of Missouri could be instrumental in convincing their colleagues to change Senate rules to make it easier to consider legislation. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted January 25, 2018 at 5:03am

Republican senators are again talking up potential rule changes to make it easier for the chamber to move President Donald Trump’s nominations, as well as spending legislation. But the necessary GOP unity  — much less broad bipartisan support — may prove elusive.

Multiple senators said the question of what to do to get the Senate legislating again was one focus during the extended Friday-night vote, just before what turned out to be a three-day government shutdown.

It also remains one of the bigger-picture interests of the “commonsense caucus” that helped pressure leadership on a deal to reopen the government.

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Pennsylvania Republican Patrick J. Toomey said Wednesday that he has been pushing his party to consider procedural changes to allow appropriations bills to get to the floor without needing the customary 60 votes.

“I have stood up in conference on a number of occasions and reminded my colleagues that the idea that we tolerate a minority of senators blocking our most fundamental responsibility, which is to spend the taxpayers’ money to fund the government, blocking us from even considering the legislation that’s required to do that, and therefore we wind up with our back up against the wall at the end of the fiscal year and we hand over all kinds of leverage to [Senate Minority Leader] Chuck Schumer to decide under what circumstances he will agree, this is madness,” he said. “And there’s absolutely no excuse for it.”

Toomey, who was speaking on conservative host Hugh Hewitt’s radio show, suggested he would back using the “nuclear option” to allow 51 senators to set a simple-majority requirement for debating spending bills.

Potential plans

One idea being talked about by senators would curtail the need for the support of 60 senators to take up appropriations bills if there is bipartisan backing at the committee level. A second would reinstate a previous arrangement that reduced the amount of post-cloture debate time for most presidential nominations.

The latter proposal, drafted by Oklahoma Republican James Lankford, has already been the subject of a Rules and Administration Committee hearing.

Delaware Democrat Chris Coons on Wednesday described any consensus on modifying the rules and procedures as “a heavy lift.”

“The bipartisan group that spent a great deal of time together this past weekend, there were obviously short-term concerns that we were addressing about how to get the government back open, about how to deal with some of our long overdue issues,” he said. “But in some ways, the larger conversations were about … how do we get back on track? Does that require rules changes? How do we get to a place where our appropriations process actually finishes on a reasonable time frame?”

With only 51 Republicans in the chamber, it is far from clear that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell could even muster the votes needed to advance any changes in precedent with only members of his own conference. But there is undoubtedly an appetite for some kind of change. 

On Sunday, amid the shutdown, Sen. Roy Blunt said he expected the spectacle of the government shutting down would lead to rule changes in the Senate.

“I think before this is over, we’re going to see some rules change. One of them could be how to get bills on the floor. But one of them will be how you get the executive calendar dealt with on the floor so you have time to deal with the rest of government,” said the Missouri Republican, a former Rules and Administration chairman and the current GOP conference vice chairman. 

The best shot

Getting 67 votes to break any filibusters of rule changes through regular order may be unlikely, but it might prove more feasible than the party-line approach this year. 

Senate Republican aides suggested the Lankford proposal to cut down on the amount of debate time allowed for Trump’s nominees may be the more likely of the two ideas to advance.

Maine independent Angus King, a member of the bipartisan group that met through the shutdown weekend, declined to speak to the specifics of Lankford’s proposal. But the Rules and Administration member said he was interested in the broader discussion about Senate floor operations.

“I think there are some things that we need to talk about to make this place work better. If a bill comes out of the Appropriations Committee that’s virtually unanimous, I believe it ought to go to the floor,” King said. “Do we need motions to proceed on appropriations bills, for example? Are there ways that we can protect the rights of the minority, and yet still make the place work better? And I’m willing to listen to those.”

In an interview with Roll Call on Wednesday, Sen. Lamar Alexander confirmed the sense of frustration about not being able to get spending bills on the floor. But the Tennessee Republican also pointed to a provision in the current rules that has never been deployed.

If the majority and minority leaders, along with seven members of each conference, want to expedite getting a measure to the floor, the cloture petition can ripen the very next day, cutting down on the amount of wasted time.

That took effect in 2013, but it has yet to take place, Alexander said.

The nominations proposal that Lankford is pushing to revive was originally crafted as an experiment for one Congress by senators including Alexander and Schumer, as part of the other changes that took place in 2013.

“There’s no need to spend all week doing nothing about a judge who gets 97 votes,” Alexander said. “You’ve got a hundred very able senators here who would like to act like senators, and that’s not acting like senators.”

Jennifer Shutt contributed to this report.