Reid must wrestle with undecided Dems to reform filibuster rules

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) could be short on votes he needs to force changes to the Senate’s filibuster rules, as nine Democratic senators sit on the fence about the proposed reforms.

In addition, Sen.-elect Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) did not commit during the campaign to reforming the filibuster rules, which brings the total number of undecided Democrats who will vote on the issue next year to 10.

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Of the nine sitting Democrats who have declined to commit to voting for the constitutional option — the controversial tactic whereby Reid could change the chamber’s rules by a simple majority vote — three indicated they could be persuaded to follow Reid’s lead.

That means Reid might be only one or two votes short of the 50 he needs to trigger the change, which Republicans call the nuclear option.

“What this tells me is that we’re very close to 51,” said Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), who has been a leading advocate of using the constitutional option to limit the powers of the minority to use dilatory tactics.

Udall noted that Democratic leaders have a month to lobby their undecided colleagues before the start of the new Congress, and that Democrats have yet to hold a caucus meeting on the subject since the election.

Democrats will control 55 seats at the start of the 113th Congress. They can afford to lose only five votes if they hope to use the constitutional option to limit filibusters.

Vice President Biden, who also serves as president of the Senate, could break a tie vote.

President Obama could be needed to step in to muster Democratic votes. His administration endorsed reform on Wednesday.

"The President has said many times that the American people are demanding action," White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer said in a statement to The Huffington Post. "They want to see progress, not partisan delay games. That hasn't changed, and the President supports Majority Leader Reid's efforts to reform the filibuster process."

The three most reluctant Democrats are Sens. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), Mark Pryor (Ark.), and Carl Levin (Mich.)

“I think that’s a mistake at this time but I’ll listen to arguments,” said Feinstein, when asked about the prospect of using the constitutional option to change filibuster rules.

Feinstein said she could support the more modest step of eliminating the ability to filibuster motions to proceed to new business. Changing the rules to make it more difficult to block votes on bills’ final passage would be bigger step.

Feinstein is not certain whether less-ambitious reforms could be accomplished under regular order, which would require 67 votes and at least 12 Republicans to sign on to reform.

Pryor voted against a package of filibuster reforms at the start of 2011. He expressed reservations about implementing them through a simple majority vote that would break from Senate tradition.

“I’m very reluctant to support it as a 51-vote threshold,” he said. “My preference would be to not change the rules and just have the internal discipline we need to conduct the nation’s business like we should.”

But he acknowledged it might not be realistic to rely on the good nature of his colleagues to solve Senate gridlock. He said he would study the issue.

Levin said he does not want to use the constitutional option, which Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) calls “breaking the rules to change the rules.”

“I am very leery about changes to rules, except by the use of the rules,” Levin told The New York Times, “and the rules require two-thirds of votes to change the rules. I prefer not to use a mechanism which I believe is dubious.”

Two other senior Democrats, Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (Mont.) and Sen. Jack Reed (R.I.), have yet to be persuaded.

“I’m for talking to my Democratic colleagues and the leader about it. We’ll see,” said Baucus.

“I’m going to work my way through it,” said Reed. “It’s all part of the idea of how you effect change.

“I’m looking at everything,” he said.

Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), the Senate’s most senior member, said he could support eliminating the filibuster on motions to proceed to bills and nominees but stopped short of endorsing the so-called talking filibuster. The talking-filibuster reform would require lawmakers to actively debate and hold the Senate floor to stall legislation.

“It is unconscionable to use a filibuster on a motion to proceed,” Inouye said in a statement. “For example, the Judiciary Committee unanimously approves judges, yet those nominations come to the floor and we have people using a filibuster. Once the filibuster is finished, we vote almost unanimously to approve the nomination. Now what kind of playground game is that?

“I am studying, very carefully, the proposals being suggested by my colleagues," he said.

Democratic lawmakers said they would discuss filibuster reform at a Democratic policy lunch next week.

Reid and Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the Senate Democrats’ chief political strategist, have been lobbying colleagues behind the scenes to support the constitutional option, lawmakers said.

Schumer, the chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, will hold a hearing on filibuster reform later this month, sources said.

Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who are both serving in their fifth terms, say they are undecided but are leaning toward triggering the constitutional option.

“I’ve told them that I want to check out with a couple of things with respect to it so I’m not locked in yet but I’m leaning very strongly in that direction,” Kerry said of a package of reforms sponsored by Udall and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D) of Oregon.

Rockefeller said he “might” support the constitutional option.

“There’s more might than might not. We’ll see how things go. We’ve got to do something different,” he said.

Rockefeller said “nothing” much gets done in the Senate these days and “I’m for radical over nothing.”

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) panned the proposal to force rules changes by simple majority vote in an interview with The New York Times earlier in this week.

“I don’t like the nuclear option,” he said. “I reserve the right to decide later, but instinctively I don’t like it. It’s avoiding the rules.”

But Nelson said Thursday that he would ultimately follow Reid’s lead.

“My mind’s open,” he said. “I’m supporting Harry Reid.”

Udall, Merkley and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) proposed a package of reforms two years ago that would have eliminated filibusters on motions to proceed to new business. It would have also required senators wanting to hold up legislation or nominees to hold the floor and debate, and shortened to two hours the time that must elapse after a filibuster on a nominee had been cut off. It failed by a vote of 44 to 51 after Baucus, Pryor and Reed voted no. Feinstein, Kerry and Inouye did not vote.