Reid again eyes Senate rulebook

Greg Nash

Liberal groups are agitating for another round of filibuster reform, after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) controversial triggering of the nuclear option last year has done little to alleviate Senate gridlock. 

A coalition of labor and liberal groups have pressed Reid to make additional changes to the Senate rules this year, something that senior Democratic aides say is very possible.

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“We strongly urge Majority Leader Reid and Chairman [Patrick] Leahy [D-Vt.] to consider reforms to floor and committee rules that will hasten the confirmation of President Obama’s talented and qualified set of nominees,” they said in a statement.

The coalition, known as Fix the Senate Now, includes Alliance for Justice, the Communications Workers of America, Common Cause and the Sierra Club.

Reid is reluctant to provoke another confrontation with Republican colleagues over the rules, but he’s frustrated with the continued obstruction and needs the help of outside groups to turn out voters in the midterm elections.

“Reid is not afraid to go further and considers reform this year a real possibility,” said a senior Senate Democratic aide. 

The Democratic leader has already slammed the door on President Obama’s request to move trade promotion authority legislation, which labor unions detest.

Labor leaders are irate the Senate could not manage to advance a modest three-month extension of unemployment benefits to a final vote this past week, even though its cost was entirely offset in a major concession to the GOP.

Civil rights leaders are not happy that Republican Sens. Saxby Chambliss (Ga.) and Johnny Isakson (Ga.) used their procedural leverage to negotiate a deal with Obama to nominate two judges with spotty civil rights records for the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus have complained about Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.) blocking African-American nominees to important courts in their home states.


One major concern among liberals is that Obama would get very few of his judicial nominees confirmed next year if Democrats lose control of the Senate. 

Stuart Rothenberg, a respected political handicapper, told Senate Republicans at their retreat Wednesday that they have a better-than-even chance of winning the majority. 

The communications workers also want Reid to change the rule that allows Republicans to block legislation with 41 votes.  

“It’s a government by obstruction instead a functioning government,” said George Kohl, senior director at CWA.

“We’ll continue to raise the question about procedural issues around the filibuster,” he said. “On the unemployment insurance vote, you had 59 people supporting extending long-term unemployment insurance, but you didn’t bring that forward to a vote. We think that’s wrong.

“We think it’s something that needs to be fixed,” Kohl said.

Another rules change, however, could further inflame Republicans and cost Reid potential swing votes needed to pass legislative priorities, such as the Paycheck Fairness Act.

"No single party should be allowed to replace fair-minded jurists with extremists from the radical fringe,” said a senior Republican aide.

“Democrats should respect the system of checks and balances that our founders established and resist the power hungry elements in their own base that care more about their own special interests than they do about fealty to the law," the aide added.

One proposal is to implement the so-called talking filibuster, which would require members of the minority party to actively hold the floor in order to block legislation.

Republicans would be less likely to filibuster if they had to organize teams to talk on the Senate floor for hours upon hours.

Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, has called on the Senate to eliminate the tradition of giving home-state senators sign-off authority on judicial nominees, also known as “blue slip” authority. 

"They are abusing the process just because they have the power to do it," Fudge told the Cleveland Plain Dealer in reference to Senate Republicans.

Fudge has accused Senate Republicans of blocking qualified African-American judicial nominees such as William Thomas, a nominee to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, and Jennifer May-Parker, a nominee to district court for the Eastern District of North Carolina.

Rubio and Burr used the blue slip process to block them.

Leahy has said he will review blue-slipping if he believes Republicans are abusing the tradition, but so far, he has acceded to their objections.

Judicial nominees that get voted out of committee still face a lengthy backlog on the Senate floor.

People for the American Way, a liberal advocacy group, estimates Reid might have to burn up 204 hours of floor time to overcome Republican dilatory tactics and clear the 32 nominees pending on the floor.

While the nominees will certainly pass if they come up for a vote, “Senate rules allow the minority to insist that the Senate devote time to needless ‘post-cloture debate’ before final confirmation,” People for the American Way wrote on its website Thursday.

There are 96 judicial vacancies on the nation’s federal courts and 38 of them are considered judicial emergencies, according to the group.

“If this keeps up, Democrats will be left with no alternative but to explore additional reforms to Senate rules and committee procedures in order to break the logjam,” said Michelle Schwartz, director of justice programs at Alliance for Justice.