McConnell And Reid Reach Filibuster Deal
Once again, the filibuster survives. Nobody should be surprised.
As expected, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and his Republican counterpart have reached a deal on filibuster reform that falls far short of the ambitious goals of many on the left:
WASHINGTON — Progressive senators working to dramatically alter Senate rules were defeated on Thursday, with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and his counterpart, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), set to announce a series of compromise reforms on the Senate floor that fall far short of the demands. The language of the deal was obtained by HuffPost and can be read here and here.
The pressure from the liberal senators, led by Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley and backed by a major coalition of progressive groups, created the political space for Reid to cut the deal with McConnell, which includes changes to how the Senate operates but leaves a fundamental feature, the silent filibuster, in place.
The deal will address the filibuster on the motion to proceed by changing the amount of debate time that would follow a cloture vote from 30 hours to four, speeding up Senate business and allowing more legislation to reach the floor. But the deal still requires Democrats to muscle 60 votes to invoke cloture on that motion, despite Reid’s earlier suggestion that he would bar a filibuster on that motion entirely.
An alternate route to get past the motion to proceed will be implemented as a change to the rules, and a filibuster on the motion would be barred if the majority can find eight members of the minority, including the minority leader, to sign a petition. But Democrats already have 55 members in their caucus, five short of the 60 needed to end a filibuster, so it’s unclear what the purpose of getting three additional Republicans would be.
Under the agreement, the minority party will be able to offer two amendments on each bill, a major concession to Republicans. This change is made only as a standing order, not a rules change, and expires at the end of the term.
The new rules will also make it easier for the majority to appoint conferees once a bill has passed, but leaves in place the minority’s ability to filibuster that motion once — meaning that even after the Senate and House have passed a bill, the minority can still mount a filibuster one more time.
Reid won concessions on district court nominations as well. Under the old rules, after a filibuster had been beaten, 30 more hours were required to pass before a nominee could finally be confirmed. That delay threatened to tie the chamber in knots. The new rules will only allow two hours to pass after cloture is invoked before a nominee is confirmed.
On that last point, it’s worth noting that the two hour limit on debate on judicial nominations only applies to nomination to the District Courts, not to the far more important, and typically more politically contentious, appointments to the Circuit Courts of Appeal and the Supreme Court. While there’s likely to be a lot of angst and upset on the left about this deal, which does less to actually cut back on the use of the filibuster than to reform Senate rules to make it easier to get things done more quickly, but I think Kevin Drum gets it right when he points out that the odds of truly radical reform were pretty slim to begin with:
The sad truth is that Democrats only have 55 votes in the Senate, and there were almost certainly more than five Democratic senators who just weren’t willing to give up the filibuster. Partly this is because they want it in place in case Republicans ever get back into power, and partly it’s because they themselves don’t want to give up the personal privileges associated with the filibuster.
Drum and others seem to be holding out hope that the odds of filibuster reform along the lines that they like will increase as more of the “old guard” leaves the Senate over the coming years. The Senate is a funny institution, though. For one thing, people tend to stay there far longer than they tend to stay in the House of Representatives, so those “old guard” Democrats who were reluctant about filibuster reform For another, after a time the “new guard” becomes the “old guard” and that typically means that they tend to have far more respect for Senate traditions and rules than they might have as a newcomer. People who are gung-ho to eliminate the filibuster now may not feel that way in six or twelve years, assuming they’re still around. Additionally, there’s the fact that a change in party control will happen. At some point, the Republicans will have control of the Senate and, then, the Democrats who hate the filibuster now will suddenly find it very useful. Finally the Senate has never been an institution accustomed to radical change. Anyone who walks in there thinking they are going to change everything to suit what they think is idea hasn’t paid any attention at all to the history of the body they are now a member of.
Interestingly, Ezra Klein asked Reid why he didn’t push for more radical reform. His response is telling:
“I’m not personally, at this stage, ready to get rid of the 60-vote threshold,” Reid (D-Nev.) told me this morning, referring to the number of votes needed to halt a filibuster. “With the history of the Senate, we have to understand the Senate isn’t and shouldn’t be like the House.”
So, once again, filibuster reform has come up short, at least as far as progressives are concerned. When even the Senate Majority leader doesn’t support your goal, though, you shouldn’t be too surprised, and you shouldn’t hold out much hope that things will be any different in the future.