Clock ticking down on filibuster reform

Time is running out for filibuster reform in the Senate.

Senators pushing to change the filibuster rules had hoped to get a proposal moving in early 2016, but six weeks into the new year, little progress has been made.

Sources say there hasn’t been any discussion within the broader Republican Conference about filibuster reform since Jan. 13, nor have there been any negotiations between Republican and Democratic leaders.

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“I’m not seeing as much movement as I’d like,” said Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), a freshman who has been at the forefront of calls to reduce the amount of idle time in the upper chamber. “We have a window between now and Election Day when both the White House and the Senate are jump-ball situations.

“Sooner, particularly in an election year, is better,” he added. “Realistically the window is between now and July.”

Senate aides say the window is probably even smaller than that, given that senators are paying increasing attention to races and polls.

Advocates of filibuster reform had hoped to strike early, before it’s clear which party is likely to win the Senate in November. Limiting the power to obstruct legislation, the thinking goes, will become difficult to impossible once the parties know who is likely to be in the minority.

With the clock ticking, Sen. James Lankford, a freshman Republican from Oklahoma, on Monday tried to ramp up the pressure with an op-ed in The Washington Post urging colleagues to address what he called “the hallmarks of a dysfunctional Senate.”

“I’m trying to encourage senators to not just complain about this. If we’re going to resolve it, there is a short time period to get that done and it’s right now,” he said. “If we dawdle on this, time is going to get away from us. We’ll get into the summer and it will be too late.”

But some Senate insiders say the momentum has already stalled, in part because of opposition from powerful conservatives such as former Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), president of the Heritage Foundation.

“I feel the momentum for filibuster reform is waning,” said Brian Darling, a former Senate Republican aide who has followed the issue closely. “Had they kicked off the year trying to engage in filibuster reform it might have had some chance. The later you get in the year, it seems like you’re changing the rules late in the game.”

A senior Senate Democratic aide says there have not been any substantive talks between party leaders on filibuster reform in 2016.

“The way to have an appropriations process that moves smoothly is to work in a bipartisan way and not load up bills with partisan riders,” the aide said. “There doesn’t need to be a rules change to make the Senate work smoothly.”

GOP leaders want to enact any rule reform through regular order, a process that would require 67 votes, or two-thirds of the Senate.

Daines, who had a long career in the private sector working for Procter & Gamble and RightNow Technologies before coming to Congress, chafed last year at the long periods of inaction on the Senate floor, often due to the threat of filibusters.

He and other GOP freshmen have pushed for changes, specifically getting rid of the ability to filibuster motions to proceed to bills — a right the minority often uses to block a bill before it’s even debated.

“If we seek to represent the greatest deliberative body in the world, I think this would create more deliberation,” Daines said Monday.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellPeter Thiel does not make the GOP pro-gay Reid: Trump is a 'hateful con man' McAuliffe: Clinton won't move TPP without changes MORE (R-Ky.) last year tapped Sen. Lamar AlexanderLamar AlexanderGOP senators to donors: Stick with us regardless of Trump Overnight Healthcare: Mysterious new Zika case | Mental health bill in doubt | Teletraining to fight opioids Hopes dim for mental health deal MORE (R-Tenn.) and Senate Rules Committee Chairman Roy BluntRoy BluntThe Republicans' hypocrisy on minimum wage Overnight Energy: Officials close in on new global emissions deal 40 senators seek higher biodiesel mandate MORE (R-Mo.) to head a special task force to review filibuster reform.

Lankford is one of four freshmen on the task force, along with Sens. Cory GardnerCory GardnerTim Kaine backs call to boost funding for Israeli missile defense Behind the scenes on Day 2 of the Republican convention Lobbyists bolting Trump convention early MORE (R-Colo.), Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and Ben Sasse (R-Neb.).

But there’s been little sense of urgency to the effort. That has raised questions about whether McConnell, a Senate traditionalist, really wants to change the rules, or whether he’s merely humoring the newest additions to the conference.

Some Senate Republican leadership aides worry that eliminating the filibuster on the motion to proceed to new legislation will sow chaos in the upper chamber by giving any rank-and-file senator greater power to offer a such a motion, undermining the ability of a majority leader to control the agenda. But other aides say this fear is overblown.

While McConnell may be worried about giving up some of his power as Senate Republican leader, he also has made passing all 12 appropriations bills individually a top priority. This time-consuming task would be made much easier in future years if the minority couldn’t block bills from coming up for debate.

Instead of putting out a single proposal for the GOP conference to rally around, the reform task force floated some ideas during a free-ranging discussion held before the joint Senate-House retreat in Baltimore in mid-January.

Lawmakers left the meeting without any sense that a reform package would move soon. 

“It was a meeting to give an update on the ongoing discussions of the working group,” said Don Stewart, a spokesman for McConnell. He said next steps “will depend on what they come up with and what our members want to do.”

One Senate GOP aide described the proposals discussed at the January meeting as trial balloons intended to gauge potential opposition.

Conservative critics, led by DeMint, balked at the main proposed reform, getting rid of the filibuster on motions to proceed.

“Getting rid of the motion to proceed filibuster isn’t nearly as important to streamlining the legislative process as cleaning up the ridiculous and cluttered floor schedule,” DeMint wrote in a Jan. 20 op-ed in The Daily Signal.

DeMint criticized GOP leaders for spending floor time on reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank, passing a highway bill and approving Iran legislation.

He also warned that Republicans might end up in the minority and come to regret making changes that could help big-government proposals pass.

“When you’re on top, it’s hard to imagine that someday you won’t be. But that’s Congress,” he wrote.

Nonetheless, Lankford remains hopeful that filibuster reform can happen, and he’s trying to get his colleagues to act before it’s too late.

“We have a few months to be able to talk about this, not only philosophically but also practically,” he said. “If we just discuss it in generality and don’t ever get to the text and debate what that’s going to be, the [opportunity] is going to come and it’s going to go.”