Dem backers of new filibuster rules undaunted by GOP

Three Democratic proponents of changing the Senate’s filibuster rules are vowing to press their case in the 112th Congress despite the GOP takeover of the House, with one senator pledging to force the issue on the very first day.

Sens. Tom Harkin (Iowa), Mark Udall (Colo.) and Tom Udall (N.M.) all told The Hill this week they are not backing down from their effort. The Senate’s rules — which are based on tradition, not the Constitution— have frustrated Democrats for the past several years as GOP leaders have required a 60-vote majority even for procedural motions.

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Sen. Tom Udall said he will force a motion on the first day of the next Congress to have Vice President Joe Biden adopt new rules for the two-year session. Then, Udall said, he will seek consensus among senators from both parties to lower the 60-vote threshold for procedural motions. Only a simple majority of 51 votes would be necessary for such a move, and Udall said he expects support from some Republicans.

“The areas that look most fruitful for rules reform is the motion to proceed and shifting the burden to require those in opposition to a bill to come forward and present their case on the floor,” Tom Udall told The Hill. “Those are the two areas that seem to resonate with the senators I’ve talked to.”

Tom Udall said he does not have a specific proposal for what the voting threshold should be, saying he simply wants to build consensus and restrict senators’ ability to hold up legislation.

“Today we don’t have 51 votes [for my proposal]. But we are working hard and gaining momentum,” he said. “I’m not going to acquiesce on the rules of the past.”

Several Democrats have spoken in favor of Tom Udall’s second proposal to force filibustering senators to show up in person on the Senate floor to explain their opposition to a motion. Currently, senators are able to block legislation without appearing.

Democrats have complained about GOP “obstruction” of their agenda since retaking the House and Senate in 2006. Tom Udall and Mark Udall and Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) are members of the 2008 class of freshmen who have most fervently pushed for change. Veteran lawmakers such as Harkin and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) are also on board.

Tom Udall is correct there will be some GOP support for the effort. Sen.-elect Dan Coats (Indiana), who knows the Senate well from his 10-year tenure from 1989 to 1999, said in a Fox News interview this month that he endorses filibuster reform.

“I think, at the very least, we need to remove the 60-vote rule for bringing a bill to the floor and actually debating it and voting on it," Coats said. "There's just too much need for moving forward with action to address our serious economic situation and a number of other issues to not go forward on that basis."

Many analysts believe nothing will come of the effort, however, and say Democrats could soon rediscover an appreciation for the filibuster. Democrats will hold only 53 seats in the next Senate, down from 59, and many members might prefer the 60-vote threshold as a tool to block conservative legislation from the GOP-controlled House. The party will also be defending 23 Senate seats in 2012, compared to just 10 for Republicans, making it a real possibility that Democrats could lose control of the chamber.

“If you’re a Democrat looking down the road, you might find the filibuster useful in the near future,” said Stuart Rothenberg, editor of The Rothenberg Political Report. “A year ago, it looked like the filibuster was the Democrats’ biggest problem standing between them and their agenda. Now, there are significantly more problems — the House is lost, and in two or four years, Democrats may need it to stop a Republican legislative tidal wave.”

Sen. Mark Udall said he won’t be deterred by partisan consideration. He presented a plan in September that would reduce the 60-vote threshold and restrict the minority party’s ability to block procedural motions while still preserving the filibuster at the final stage of voting.

“This isn’t about a particular agenda or in respect to a particular time in history,” Mark Udall told The Hill. “The Senate has suffered way too much gridlock, and there is a strong sense by the public that the Senate is dysfunctional. … My goal is to protect the rules, but eliminate unnecessary delays, and what I’ve designed is appropriate for both parties.”

Harkin also won’t back down. He told The Hill in a statement that he, too, will push for a gradual decrease in the voting threshold for procedural motions — a plan he first proposed in 1995, when Democrats were the minority party.

“At a time when split control of Congress will necessitate compromise, this is an ideal moment to bring about needed rule changes in the Senate that would protect minority rights to debate and deliberation, while ensuring majority rule in the Senate,” Harkin said.

“Make no mistake: this is not about a ‘power grab’ by a Democratic Senator reacting to the recent elections in which my party lost numerous seats, making it harder for Democrats to obtain the 60 votes now needed for passage of legislation. The truth is the reforms I advocate are not about one party or about one agenda gaining an unfair advantage; it is about the Senate as an institution operating more fairly, effectively and democratically.”

Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor at The Cook Political Report, doubts any change will occur.

“[Harkin] has lived through being in the minority where the filibuster is your friend,” Duffy said. “What’s going on is that the guys who have been there a while are constantly telling these younger members, ‘What frustrates you now you may desperately need in the future, so be careful what you wish for.’ And I think that’s true. They’re going to have to be careful. They may have more hearings, but I don’t know that it’s going to go beyond that.”

Duffy also doubts that Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) will go along with the idea, out of a sense of Senate tradition. Indeed, McConnell has spoken out several times against filibuster reform, often citing the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.V.), who argued against the idea in his last public speech before his death this year.

But Sen. Tom Udall turns that argument around, saying the Senate’s true rules traditions have been perverted.

“Let’s not forget what the filibuster was about in history — both parties had such respect for each other that the majority wouldn’t move forward without giving the minority the right to speak,” Tom Udall said. “If you look at the Senate now, it’s broken, and it’s unable to respond to the American people.

“In the past year, we didn’t do a single appropriations bill. That’s our main job, to fund the government, and typically at least we do defense and intelligence appropriations. We didn’t even do those. And we didn’t do a budget. People are concerned about the deficit right now, well, if you don’t do a budget you can’t address the deficit. So there is a good case to be made for rules reform.”