Members of Senate leadership working to ease flow of legislative business

Members of the Senate leadership are working on a gentlemen’s agreement to smooth the flow of legislative business.

Sens. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), vice chairman of the Democratic Conference, and Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, are leading the effort, according to a source familiar with the talks. 

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The details have been kept secret, but the agreement could include a deal to reduce the number of times Republicans filibuster motions to proceed to legislation in exchange for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) giving the GOP more opportunities to offer amendments to legislation.

The agreement is not final, and negotiators say nothing is settled until everything in the deal has the necessary agreement.

Schumer and Alexander spoke about the progress of their talks during private meetings of the Senate Democratic and Republican conferences.

Alexander said his colleagues were receptive to some of the proposed changes he outlined in Tuesday’s conference meeting. 

“They didn’t throw me out of the room,” Alexander quipped.

“They listened,” he said. “We all want the Senate to work better. What I really want and I think what most Democrats want, we’d like for most bills to come to the floor and for most senators to be able to offer amendments and debate.

“We’ve degenerated in the Senate to a mere shadow of our former selves, because bills don’t get to the floor and then we don’t get to offer amendments.”

Alexander said it would be easier to reduce the number of times Republicans filibuster motions to consider legislation and how often Reid blocks Republicans from offering amendments by informal agreement instead of a rules change.

“What will make that work best is not a change in the rules, but a change in behavior,” he said. 

Alexander predicted that if the minority party allows bills to come to the floor without requiring a vote of 60 senators to proceed, and if the majority allows a range of amendments to legislation, a productive working relationship would ensue.

But Alexander warned that Republicans couldn’t agree to forgo filibusters on all motions to take up controversial legislation.

For example, if Reid tries to bring card-check legislation to the floor, which would dispense with the requirement that union shops form by secret ballot, Republicans will filibuster a motion to even consider it.

A push by junior Democratic senators to change the filibuster rules is what got both sides talking.

That proposal, which would strip the minority party’s power to filibuster motions to begin debate on legislation, does not have the 51 votes necessary to pass the upper chamber.

Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), who is leading the charge, also called for new rules to require filibustering senators to hold the floor continuously, which would make it significantly more difficult to block legislation.

It became clear during a caucus meeting Tuesday afternoon, however, that 51 Democrats would not vote to forcibly implement those reforms through a procedure known as the constitutional option, according to sources familiar with the meeting.

Under the constitutional option, the majority party can change the chamber’s rules with a simple majority vote during the first legislative day of a new Congress.

However, the Senate was set to adjourn its first legislative day Tuesday night, according to a GOP source.

Some Democrats preferred that Udall and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) not open the Pandora’s box of the constitutional option, which could motivate Republicans to change rules unilaterally if they win the majority in future Congresses.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), however, hasn’t favored changing rules and has criticized Democrats’ efforts to limit the minority’s power.

Reid said the push by Udall and Merkley to strip Republicans of filibuster power helped bring about the tentative gentlemen’s agreement.

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“We have been able, as a result of their advocacy, to get the Republicans to tentatively agree to a number of changes,” Reid told reporters Tuesday afternoon. “I’m not at liberty to discuss those at this time, but … I hope that we can move this down the road in the next 24, 48 hours. We’re making a lot of progress.”

Aides to Udall and Merkley said the lawmakers will not drop their effort to require senators who filibuster to hold the floor and actively debate, instead of merely stating an objection, as is now the practice.

“He is still fighting for the strongest reforms that can possibly be reached,” said Daniel Watson, a spokesman for Udall.

Julie Edwards, Merkley’s spokeswoman, said her boss “believes members of the Senate should go on the record to require people who want to debate to go on the floor and debate.”

Liberal advocacy groups that have called for changes to filibuster rules are skeptical about a gentlemen’s agreement on amendments and motions to proceed.

“I’d rather see it codified because it’s stronger than an agreement by handshake,” said Sarah Dufendach, vice president of legislative affairs at Common Cause.

Alexander said it’s more likely Senate Republicans could agree with a proposal to reduce the number of executive-branch nominees who require Senate confirmation.

“One area we’re working on is to find it easier for the president to staff his or her Cabinet,” Alexander said. “Many of us have tried before to reduce the numbers of positions that are subject to Senate confirmation.”