The standing order
The standing order, Senate Resolution 15, provides for a motion to proceed that would be limited to four hours of debate. Should this motion be adopted, then the sequence of the first four amendments to the bill would be locked in, with the minority going first, the majority second, and so on. Under this scenario, the minority would be guaranteed at least two amendments before the majority leader could fill the amendment tree.
The amendments would not be subject to further amendment; the next amendment could not be offered until the previous one was disposed of. The amendments would be subject to a tabling motion and would be subject to possible filibuster. If the Senate was stuck on the first minority amendment, and a tabling motion failed, then the Senate could try to invoke cloture on the bill itself as a way out of this procedural box canyon. If that cloture failed, the majority leader could attempt to move to proceed to a different bill or could dispose of the minority’s amendment by adopting it.
If cloture on the bill was successful and the amendment was germane, it would be guaranteed a majority vote. If the amendment was not germane then, contrary to normal cloture enforcement where the amendment would be ruled out of order and fall, here it would be guaranteed a vote but it would be subject to a 60-vote threshold. If the consideration of one of the amendments delayed the consideration of the other amendments in the sequence, they would still be guaranteed consideration at the end of the post-cloture debate time with up to one hour for debate and a vote.
Also in this standing order is a provision that reduces the time for post-cloture debate on most nominations. For most, with some exceptions, the time post-cloture would be shortened from the maximum of 30 hours to eight hours. For District Court nominees, the post-cloture time would be shortened to two hours. The exceptions, cabinet-level nominations, Circuit Court and Supreme Court nominations, would still be subject to the possible 30 hours for debate.
The second resolution, Senate Resolution 16, amends the standing rules of the Senate to provide another possible motion to proceed. In this instance, if a cloture motion is filed and its 16 signatures include both leaders and an equal number of members from both parties, then the cloture vote would occur the next day instead of the usual two days later. If cloture is successful, the Senate would then vote immediately on the motion to proceed.
In addition, this resolution also makes it easier for the Senate to go to conference with the House on legislation which has been passed by both bodies. Up until now, if unanimous consent was not granted, it took three separate motions, each debatable and subject to a filibuster, in order to proceed to conference.
These motions are:
1) For the Senate to insist on its amendment or disagree to the House amendment
2) To request a conference with the House, or agree to the House’s request for a conference
3) To authorize the chair to appoint the conferees
Under the new arrangement, these three motions are collapsed into one and, if cloture is necessary, then the cloture vote occurs on the same day, after two hours of debate. If cloture is invoked, then the post-cloture time is eliminated and the Senate would vote immediately on the motion to go to conference.
A satisfactory outcome?
It remains to be seen if these changes will improve the Senate’s efficiency but they represent a good first step. After all, we are talking about a body that was intentionally designed to be inefficient.
It’s understandable, given the volume of complaints of obstruction from the Senate’s leaders over the past couple of years, that these changes are not satisfactory to those who responded to these complaints and sponsored more far reaching reforms. But calls for changing the body into one where the majority rules with an iron hand were aimed at the wrong body.
As for changing the rules on “opening day” by majority vote, the proponents of this tactic should hope that the Republican leadership does not head their call on January 3, 2015, if they take the majority. Perhaps the time will come to turn the Senate into a majority ruled body like the House, with each new majority free to rewrite the Rules at the start of a new Congress. Maybe that’s the ultimate path in this era of instant communication and hyper partisanship. In order to avoid this and for the Senate to legislate, as it did in the not too distant past, each side will need to restrain itself and chose not to use all of its parliamentary options all of the time.
But who am I to judge? Heck, I’m still trying to book flights on Pan Am.
Paone, executive vice president of Prime Policy Group in Washington, DC, spent 29 years working on the Senate floor for Democratic leadership in various capacities.