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Tight Senate Vote to Reform the Filibuster Draws Near

by Alex Gauthier, published
Merkley compares the filibusters during LBJ and Harry Reid's tenure as Senate Majority Leader

Tight Senate Vote to Reform the Filibuster Draws Near

This is likely the do or die moment for the Senate vote to reform the filibuster. Through what is called the 'talking filibuster,' Senators would no longer be able to halt legislation with a phone call. The rule change is being asserted by Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon), Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). The Senate customarily addresses its rules at the start of a new congressional session, technically beginning on January 3rd, but can last for weeks as long as the Senate stands in recess rather than adjourns. As long as the Senate technically remains in its 'first legislative day' a simple majority vote, or 51 senators, can amend Senate procedure.

Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) announced this morning that the Senate would remain in recess in order to allow consideration of rule changes throughout the week. "We will reserve the right of all Senators to propose changes to the Senate rules. And we will explicitly not acquiesce in the carrying over of all the rules from the last Congress. It is my intention that the Senate will recess today, rather than adjourn, to continue the same legislative day, and allow this important rules discussion to continue later this month."

Reid has been trying to cut a deal with Senate Republicans who are largely opposed to the institution of a talking filibuster, but the Merkley proposal claims it is central to substantive reform. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (D-Kentucky) has voiced serious opposition to filibuster reform. One may recognize McConnell as the senator who decided to filibuster his own bill several weeks ago.

Regarding the need for filibuster reform, Merkley said on the Senate floor today, ”On issue after issue after issue we saw inaction...How much action can there be if we see more than 100 filibusters in the next two years.”

According to the Merkley-Udall proposal, it will amend the filibuster rules by:

  • Eliminat the Filibuster on Motions to Proceed: Clears a path to debate by making motions to proceed not subject to a filibuster, but providing two hours of debate.
  • Requir a Talking Filibuster: Forces Senators who filibuster to actually speak on the floor, greatly increasing public accountability and requiring time and energy if the minority wants to use this tool to obstruct the Senate.
  • Expedit Nominations: Reduces post-cloture debate on nominations from 30 hours to 2 hours, except for Supreme Court Justices (for whom the current 30 hours would remain intact).
  • Eliminat the Filibuster on Motions to Establish a Conference Committee: Reduces the steps to establish a conference committee from three motions to one, and limits debate the consolidated motion to 2 hours.

Merkley contended earlier this month that they had at least 48 Democratic votes in favor of his filibuster reform proposal, but several Democratic Senators have previously avoided votes on filibuster reform including Dianne Feinstein (California), Max Baucus (Montana), Carl Levin (Michigan), and Barbara Boxer (California).

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