Bipartisan Senate group supports plan to avoid 'nuclear option' in filibuster reform

A bipartisan group of senators has coalesced around a plan to reform Senate filibusters, but it stops well short of more dramatic changes pushed by liberal Democrats.

Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.) say they are leading the effort to avert Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) threat to use the “nuclear option,” a controversial maneuver that would change Senate rules with a simple majority vote.

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“A number of us is very deeply troubled by the idea that we would do something in violation of the rules, which provide a two-thirds vote to change the rules and which provide that the Senate is a continuing body,” Levin said at a press conference with McCain. “I’m not going to try to characterize how many are deeply troubled by the idea of the nuclear option, which again has never been used to change the rules.”

McCain, Levin and other senators have proposed speeding up the Senate’s business by issuing a standing order at the start of the 113th Congress in January. It would allow Reid to sunset the change of procedure after two years.

Levin said a standing order of the Senate would have the same force of a rules change and would need to be approved by 60 members of the Senate. A change to the Senate rules under regular order would require 67 votes, which is considered too high a hurdle to overhaul the chamber’s controversial filibuster rule.

Sens. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) participated in the ad-hoc group that helped craft the recommended reforms. Schumer and Alexander are the chairman and ranking Republican, respectively, of the Rules Committee, which has jurisdiction over filibuster reform.

The McCain-Levin proposal, which was circulated to the Senate Republican and Democratic conferences Friday afternoon, would give the Senate majority leader two options to move to new business.

One option would allow the leader to prohibit a filibuster on a motion to proceed in exchange for guaranteeing the minority leader votes on two amendments to the legislation up for consideration.

The second option would allow the majority leader to immediately hold a vote to limit debate on a motion to proceed to new business as long as the minority leader and five senators from each Senate caucus approved of the move.

The McCain-Levin proposal seeks to streamline the process for moving legislation to conference negotiations with the House. It would also speed the consideration of lower-level nominees to the executive and judicial branches.

But it does little to make it more difficult for senators to block final votes on legislation and nominees.

A group of Democrats led by Sens. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Jeff Merkley (Ore.) say senators who want to block action should be required to actively hold the floor and debate, an enervating mandate for lawmakers who now merely need to state their objection to stall business.

Merkley circulated a memo to colleagues this month proposing that if the majority failed to round up 60 votes to quash a filibuster, the Senate would enter a period of extended debate during which lawmakers must hold the floor. If no senator were present to discuss the pending business, the majority leader could schedule a simple majority vote to set up final passage.

McCain and Levin have recommended that the Democratic and Republican leader inform members of their conferences that senators must come to the floor to debate or object to a bill or nominee, but critics say that is not enough.

“[T]he basic thing is that you would still be able to continue down the path of filibusters that are hidden,” Udall said.

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

Udall said Reid has the 51 votes he needs to force a rules change without buy-in from Republicans.

“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,” he 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 often called the nuclear option. Democrats backing the maneuver have described it as the “Constitutional option.”

“That my friends would be in my view a disaster and leading to the destruction of the unique aspect of the United States Senate as envisioned by our founding fathers,” McCain said.

McCain suggested proponents of more drastic reform, many of them junior Democrats, lack full understanding of the Senate.

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

“I really don’t think that most of us who have been around here for a while want to see a nuclear situation where 51 votes would basically govern the way that the United States Senate functions,” he said.

--Ben Geman contributed to this report.

--This article as originally published at 5:23 p.m. and last updated at 7:55 p.m.