Leading proponent of filibuster reform claims he has 51 votes

Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), a leading proponent of filibuster reform, said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) has the 51 votes he needs to change Senate rules with the "nuclear option."

The maneuver would be controversial, however, and could heighten partisan tensions at the start of the 113th Congress in January. Republicans say using 51 votes to change Senate procedures — and to prevent the minority party in the Senate from blocking a majority-vote — amounts to breaking the rules to change them.

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“The crucial thing for all of you to know is Harry Reid’s got 51 votes to do the Constitutional option at the beginning of the Congress,” Udall said. “My sense is if he can’t get agreement on the other side, then he’s going to go forward.”

Changing rules with a simple majority vote is considered so controversial it is sometimes called the nuclear option. Democrats backing the maneuver have described it as the “Constitutional option.”

A bipartisan group of senators including Senate Rules Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the ranking Republican member of the Rules panel, are meanwhile working on a bipartisan compromise to change filibuster rules under regular order, which requires 67 votes.

Sens. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.) are part of the ad-hoc group working on a compromise to avoid the nuclear option.

The bipartisan group of senators floated their plan Friday afternoon.

It stops far short of the broader weakening of the filibuster that Udall, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and other Democrats are pushing to adopt with the “nuclear” or “constitutional” option.

Under the bipartisan plan, the Senate would adopt an order at the opening of the next Congress that would give the majority leader more tools to overcome procedural barriers to debating bills.

“The key, number one part is to give the majority leader options to overcome the filibuster and the threat of a filibuster on a motion to proceed. That has been the greatest problem around here in terms of getting to the business of working on bills,” Levin said at a press conference.

The plan, according to a summary, would limit and substantially expedite debate on a “motion to proceed” to legislation, and seek to ensure that both parties have the option to offer amendments to bills.

Elsewhere, the plan would consolidate motions to go to conference on bills with the House, and expedite action on some judicial nominations, among other features.

It also calls on the respective Democratic and Republican leaders to less formally press their caucuses not to hold up bills.

For instance, it states that leaders and bill managers should not honor requests to object or threats to filibuster on another senator’s behalf “unless that senator comes to the floor and exercises his or her rights himself or herself,” according to the summary.

Udall said the plan falls short of requiring actual, talking filibusters. “I don’t think it stops the gridlock,” he said.

But McCain, at the press conference with Levin, defended the proposal and suggested the Democrats pressing for more sweeping changes to the filibuster lack the perspective of veteran lawmakers.

“Most of them, in all due candor and honesty, have never been in the minority,” McCain said.

“The proposal that was circulated in there, which I assume you could all get a copy of, the basic thing is that you would still be able to continue down the path of filibusters that are hidden,” Udall said of the ad-hoc group’s work.

Udall said the ad-hoc group’s framework would rely on a gentleman’s agreement that would still allow senators to filibuster legislation without actually holding the floor and debating it.

“You wouldn’t have responsibility, you wouldn’t have people stepping forward,” he said. “It’s more in a gentlemen’s agreement, which we’ve already done that, it failed.”

Ben Geman contributed.

Updated at 4:01 p.m.