Filibuster reform may sway debt talks

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) is warning that Democrats could blow up fiscal-cliff talks by threatening to force a controversial rule change at the start of 2013. 

McConnell suggested Tuesday that Democrats would be wrong to think the threat of the so-called “constitutional option,” also known as the “nuclear option,” does not affect deficit-reduction talks. 

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McConnell said that if he were in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) position, “the last thing on my list would have been to throw a bomb into the Senate, to have it blow up and have everybody mad as heck.”

The constitutional option is a controversial procedure for changing the Senate’s rules through a simple majority vote. It can take various forms, but the expected path in January would be for Reid to ask the Senate to adopt new rules without pausing for unanimous consent. The presiding chair, likely Vice President Biden, would back Reid’s motion and his ruling could then be sustained by a simple majority.

“I mean, I’m just perplexed about the judgment on display here, blowing up the Senate at a time when the election is behind us,” McConnell said. 

McConnell said the best way to reach a bipartisan deal to avoid the expiration of the Bush-era tax rates and stop scheduled spending cuts would be to strengthen bipartisan relations. 

“I hope we can put all this divisiveness behind us and build confidence and relationships on a bipartisan basis, which would help us get there at the end of the year,” he said.

Some Republicans wonder whether Reid is using the threat of filibuster reform as a bargaining chip in the year-end push for a deficit-reduction package. 

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said he did not know Reid’s thinking but sees it as a possibility. 

“It could be,” he said. “Anything can be a bargaining chip in the Senate. Maybe that’s some of it.”

Reid’s spokesman, Adam Jentleson, firmly dismissed speculation that Reid has ulterior motives for pushing filibuster reform. 

“He is pushing this issue on the merits,” Jentleson said. “He sincerely believes change needs to happen based on his experience in the Senate over the past six years.” 

Whether Reid is using it or not, the threat of a majority vote at the end of the year to curb the rights of the minority gives the majority leader another point of leverage, in addition to the expiring Bush tax rates and automatic cuts to defense spending. 

Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), the incoming Republican whip, said he wants to be assured at the end of the year that Reid will not trigger what he calls the “thermonuclear option.” 

“I hope cooler heads will prevail and they’ll talk Sen. Reid off the cliff,” said Cornyn. 

Cornyn said he sees filibuster reform as separate from deficit-reduction talks. 

“I’d like to know that it’s not going to happen, and I hope cooler heads will prevail,” he said. 

McConnell said Reid should work with Republicans to change the Senate’s filibuster rule in a bipartisan way that can win 67 votes, the threshold necessary to change the rules under regular order. 

“The majority leader and myself ought to be sitting down together to consider whether or not rule changes are appropriate,” he said. “And if we were to reach an agreement, it would be done in a manner consistent with the rules, which would mean it would require 67 votes, which I don’t doubt would happen if the two of us agreed.”