Republicans huddle on filibuster changes

Republicans huddle on filibuster changes
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Senate Republicans will meet Wednesday to discuss a task force’s recommendations for changing the filibuster.

Republican reformers hope to modify the rule with a two-thirds vote of the chamber, which means they will need to persuade a large group of Democrats to go along with them. So far, Democrats are cautiously receptive to the proposed changes.

The main topic of debate is a proposal to eliminate the filibuster on motions to consider bills on the Senate floor.

Other proposals include reducing the amount of time that must elapse before a vote is held to begin floor debate and taking less time to proceed to a final vote after senators have already voted to end dilatory debate.

Senate rules now require up to 30 hours of debate to elapse between a cloture vote and final vote, though that mandate has been subject to different interpretations.

“Our goal is to see if there are rules changes that will help make the Senate more effective and efficient without damaging minority rights,” said Sen. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderOvernight Health Care: House leaves out ObamaCare fix from funding bill | Trump appointees pushed to end teen pregnancy program | Key Dem raises concerns over potential CDC pick Lawmakers race to prevent shutdown amid last-minute snags House leaves out ObamaCare fix from must-pass funding bill MORE (R-Tenn.), who is leading the effort. “As one senator said, is there anything we can do to reduce the standing around and waiting time?”

Republicans plan to brief Senate Democratic Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidTrump presses GOP to change Senate rules Only thing Defense’s UFO probe proves is power of political favors Nevada Democrat accused of sexual harassment reconsiders retirement: report MORE (Nev.) and other key Democrats after their discussion.

Alexander said the task force would present a menu of options.

“We want to turn our thinking over to our Democratic colleagues and then the Rules Committee and urge the Rules Committee early this year to see if they can come to a consensus,” he said.

If approved, the rule changes would take effect at the beginning of next year, when either party could be in charge of the chamber. Reformers are pushing to hold a vote on the proposal in the next few months, before it’s apparent which party might have the upper hand in the November elections.

While eliminating the filibuster on the motion to proceed might sound like a small-bore change, it could have a profound impact on how the Senate functions.

If bills can’t be filibustered at the starting gate, the Senate majority leader — now Sen. Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP senator blocking Trump's Intel nominee Spending bill delay raises risk of partial government shutdown support GOP leaders to Trump: Leave Mueller alone MORE (R-Ky.) — would have more power to schedule days of debate on legislation and votes on amendments.

McConnell has made it a top priority to move all 12 spending bills on the floor separately and pass them by Oct. 1, when a new fiscal year begins. The practice has been nearly abandoned in recent Congresses.

Last year, Democrats often stopped bills dead in their tracks before floor debate even began. That made it easier for Democratic senators to vote against items because the underlying legislation received little public airing.

On Wednesday, Senate Republicans will explore the ramifications of scrapping the initial 60-vote procedural hurdle for all legislation and of scrapping it only for spending bills.

House Republicans, frustrated with last year’s gridlock over spending measures, pushed the second option during budget talks in the fall.

“It’s a discussion of rules reform and potential ways you can change the rules,” said Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntSpending talks face new pressure Senate GOP shoots down bill blocking Trump tariffs Senate Republicans float legislation to reverse Trump tariffs MORE (R-Mo.), the chairman of the Senate Rules Committee and a member of the special GOP task force that has explored recommendations for changing the filibuster.

“At this stage it’s a discussion of what could happen. We’ll see how quickly that moves to the next point,” he said.

“If the rules need to change to allow the Senate to function again, that’s an important conversation to have. When the Senate is dysfunctional, it shifts the balance of power to the White House,” said Sen. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerTrump presses GOP to change Senate rules Republicans insist tax law will help in midterms The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE (R-Colo.), a freshman and member of the task force. 

Even the chamber’s senior members, who are generally reluctant to embrace rules changes, are open to the reforms. They doubt productivity can be increased solely by appealing to the better angels of their colleagues’ natures.

“I think it’s something I’d like to seriously consider,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCainJohn Sidney McCainTrump congratulated Putin after his national security team told him not to: report Trump faces backlash after congratulating Putin on election win McCain rips Trump's congratulatory call to Putin as an insult to Russian people MORE (R-Ariz.), who called the 60-vote procedural hurdle to begin floor debate “an unnecessary hoop that you have to go through.”

But, he warned, “I’ve always been very cautious about changing the rules because there’s no such thing as a permanent majority.”

The GOP task force will present a menu of options but will not press lawmakers to adopt a particular approach, say sources familiar with the expected presentation. 

The other members of the ad hoc reform group are freshmen Sens. James Lankford (R-Okla.) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.).

Many Republican senators, especially freshmen elected in 2014, were frustrated with their failure to begin debate on spending bills last year due to Democratic filibusters.

Democrats blocked the spending bills because they feared Republicans would not allow them votes on amendments and that the GOP would boost spending for defense but not domestic programs.

This week, however, Democrats said they would be willing to change the rules, knowing they could be in the majority next year.

“I happen to believe very strongly that we need to go back to regular order on appropriations bills. That’s the heart of it,” said Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinWhat’s genius for Obama is scandal when it comes to Trump Coalition presses Transportation Dept. for stricter oversight of driverless cars Saudi energy deal push sparks nuclear weapon concerns MORE (Calif.), a senior Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, who is often a bellwether of practical sentiment in her caucus.

But Sen. Barbara MikulskiBarbara Ann MikulskiDems ponder gender politics of 2020 nominee Robert Mueller's forgotten surveillance crime spree Clinton: White House slow-walking Russia sanctions MORE (Md.), the top-ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, said spending bills should be treated the same as other bills. She would oppose any proposal that would eliminate the filibuster on the motion to proceed only for appropriations legislation.

“Any filibuster reform has to be comprehensive. It can’t just be for one sector,” she said, adding that it was too early for her to talk about eliminating the filibuster on all motions to proceed.

Sen. Jeff MerkleyJeffrey (Jeff) Alan MerkleyBill to bolster gun background checks gains enough support to break filibuster Democrats remain skeptical of Trump’s rebuilding plan Dems to face off in Calif. nomination fights MORE (Ore.), a liberal junior member of the Democratic caucus, has led the fight for filibuster reform in recent years.

On Tuesday, Merkley said he would support discarding the filibuster on the motion to proceed only if the reform includes guaranteeing the minority votes on amendments to the bill advancing.

“The balance that has to exist, that if you get onto the bill, you have the ability to offer amendments. This has been stressed by the Republicans when they were in the minority and the Democrats when we were in the minority,” he said.

Sen. Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerConscience protections for health-care providers should be standard Pension committee must deliver on retirement promise Dem super PAC launches ad defending Donnelly on taxes MORE (N.Y.), the top-ranking Democrat on the Rules Committee, said he has discussed the reform proposals with Alexander but declined to comment on them until he had reviewed them more closely.

A Democratic leadership aide said rules reform is not necessary to get spending bills moving again this year.

“The way to get the appropriations process back on track is for both sides to negotiate good bills,” said the aide. “Anything that limits the minority’s right to influence bills isn’t going to go very well.”