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 Finance: Trump says shutdown 'could happen' | Ryan, conservatives inch closer to spending deal | Senate approves motion to go to tax conference | Ryan promises 'entitlement reform' in 2018 Senate approves motion to go to tax conference House conservatives, Ryan inch closer toward spending deal 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 ReidBill O'Reilly: Politics helped kill Kate Steinle, Zarate just pulled the trigger Tax reform is nightmare Déjà vu for Puerto Rico Ex-Obama and Reid staffers: McConnell would pretend to be busy to avoid meeting with Obama 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 strategist donates to Alabama Democrat McConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees Brent Budowsky: A plea to Alabama voters 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 BluntDems push for more money for opioid fight Trump asked Senate Republicans to end Russia election interference investigation: report An overlooked solution to the opioid epidemic 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 GardnerDems look to use Moore against GOP McConnell: 'No change of heart' on Roy Moore US trade deficit rises on record imports from China 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 McCainGOP strategist donates to Alabama Democrat Meghan McCain knocks Bannon: 'Who the hell are you' to criticize Romney? Dems demand Tillerson end State hiring freeze, consult with Congress 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 FeinsteinGrassley blasts Democrats over unwillingness to probe Clinton Avalanche of Democratic senators say Franken should resign Blumenthal: ‘Credible case' of obstruction of justice can be made against Trump MORE (Calif.), a senior Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, who is often a bellwether of practical sentiment in her caucus.

But Sen. Barbara MikulskiBarbara MikulskiClinton: White House slow-walking Russia sanctions Top Lobbyists 2017: Hired Guns Gore wishes Mikulski a happy birthday at 'Inconvenient Sequel' premiere 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 MerkleyAvalanche of Democratic senators say Franken should resign Senate nixes provision boosting conservative college after uproar Overnight Energy: Panel advances controversial Trump nominee | Ex-coal boss Blankenship to run for Senate | Dem commissioner joins energy regulator 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 SchumerAmerica isn't ready to let Sessions off his leash Schumer celebrates New York Giants firing head coach: ‘About time’ GOP should reject the left's pessimism and the deficit trigger 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.”