Senate Dems introduce rules reform that weakens filibuster

Senate Democrats have introduced a package of rules reforms that would limit the minority party’s ability to slow or block controversial legislation.
 
Democrats have postponed a vote on the package until late January, when lawmakers will return from a two-week recess, giving them time to smooth over differences in their conference.  

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Some lawmakers worry they would regret changes if they found themselves in the minority after the 2012 elections, especially in light of Republican efforts to repeal healthcare reform.
 
The package includes a concession to Senate Republicans who demanded a curb on Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) power to prevent amendments from getting votes.
 
The most significant proposed reform would require senators who wage filibusters to actually hold the floor by debating the issue in question — a physically onerous task.
 
If the majority party fails to muster 60 votes to cut off debate, the filibustering senators must “enter a period of continuous debate on the measure, motion or other matter pending,” according to the resolution.
 
The package would take away senators’ right to filibuster the motion to begin debate on a bill.
 
Under current rules, it can take as long as three days just to begin debate on a bill, assuming the majority can gather 60 votes to proceed to it.
 
This has allowed members of the minority to keep the Senate chamber nearly empty for days while procedural time ticks down.
 
The proposed reform would limit debate on a motion to take up a bill to two hours.
 
The reform would also prevent senators from keeping secret holds on executive and judicial branch nominees and legislation.
 
Secret holds now may be held for a few days before the opposing senator must reveal his or her name. Lawmakers, however, have exploited a loophole by passing holds back and forth to avoid the disclosure requirement. That practice would no longer be allowed.
 
The package speeds the consideration of the president’s nominees by limiting the time that must elapse after the Senate votes to end a filibuster. Under the proposal, the time between a cloture vote and a final vote on a nomination could not exceed two hours — instead of 30 hours.  
 
In a significant concession to Republicans, the reform package would guarantee the minority party the right to offer germane amendments to legislation. Reid has often shielded vulnerable Democratic incumbents from taking tough votes by blocking Republican-sponsored amendments.
 
Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) is the lead sponsor of the reform package. Co-sponsors include Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Sens. Tom Harkin (Iowa), Jeff Merkley (Ore.), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio) and Mark Begich (Alaska).
 
A senior Senate Democratic aide said some of the younger Democratic senators are having second thoughts about filibuster reform because they expect to be in the minority at some point in their careers.
 
“Believe me, when you’re in the minority, you want the filibuster,” said the aide.
 
Brown, who was elected in 2006, said he wants to reform the rules because he’s willing to “camp out” on the Senate floor to oppose legislation such as a repeal of healthcare reform.
 
“If you feel strongly enough about something, you got to come up with 41 votes and you got to stay on the floor and do this,” said Brown.
 
“I feel strongly enough if they try to take away those benefits from seniors,” he said in reference to drug discounts included in the healthcare reform law. “A lot of us would camp out on the floor if we were in the minority.”

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) introduced Wednesday a stand-alone proposal that would require lawmakers to wage talking filibusters.

Named after the movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” Lautenberg’s Mr. Smith Bill would allow the Senate to proceed to an immediate vote on legislation if the senators who are blocking it with a filibuster allow the debate to cease or give up the floor.

“The filibuster is being abused to create gridlock and prevent the Senate from doing the people’s business. Instead of being a deliberative body, the Senate has become a deadlocked body,” Lautenberg said.

This article has been updated.