Udall, Merkley and Harkin unveil filibuster-reform resolution

Liberal Democrats on Thursday introduced a resolution to dramatically overhaul the Senate’s filibuster rules.

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The sponsors, Sens. Tom Udall (N.M.), Jeff Merkley (Ore.) and Tom Harkin (Iowa), called on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to put the reform in effect by using the nuclear option, which they call the “constitutional option.” This maneuver would allow Reid to change the Senate rules with a simple majority vote, instead of clearing the 67-vote threshold needed to change rules under regular order.

“We have the power to change the Senate from being a graveyard for good ideas to an institution that can respond effectively to the challenges facing our nation,” Udall said in a statement. “Our proposal is simple, limited and fair. We make reasonable changes to nominations and conference committees and do away with the status quo of stealth and silent filibusters that prevents the Senate from getting its work done.”

The most ambitious element is a call to establish the talking filibuster rule. Currently, senators can delay legislation for days and require a 60-vote majority to resume action merely by telling their leader or another colleague that they object to it.

Udall, Merkley and Harkin want to force senators who filibuster to actually speak on the floor. They argue it would greatly increase public accountability and require the minority to use time and energy to stall business.

“The filibuster, once used only on issues of personal principle, is now used regularly as an instrument of partisan politics,” Merkley said. “It hurts our ability to take on the big challenges we face as Americans. And we need to fix it. We must put an end to the secret, silent filibuster that is haunting the Senate.”

Their resolution also calls for the elimination of the filibuster on motions to proceed. Under their plan, such motions would be subject to only two hours of debate.

It would eliminate the filibuster on motions to move Senate-passed bills to conference negotiations with the House. Currently, senators can filibuster any or all of three motions to go to conference. The Udall-Merkley-Harkin plan would collapse those into one and limit debate time to two hours.

It would expedite executive- and judicial-branch nominations by reducing post-cloture debate from 30 hours to two. This change would not affect Supreme Court nominees.

These lawmakers argue that Article 1, Section 5 of the Constitution empowers a majority of senators to amend the operating rules of the Senate at the beginning of a new Congress.

Reid on Thursday called the Senate into recess and plans to prolong the first legislative day until Jan. 22 so lawmakers have more time to debate filibuster reform.

Some senior Democratic senators, led by Carl Levin (Mich.), the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, oppose sharply limiting the minority party’s ability to filibuster, especially by triggering the nuclear option.

Levin has co-sponsored a plan with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) that would make it easier for the majority leader to proceed to new business, send a Senate-passed bill to conference and approve executive- and judicial-branch nominees.

But it would not require senators to actively hold the floor to wield a filibuster.

The Levin-McCain plan would eliminate filibusters on motions to proceed if the majority leader guaranteed the minority leader and the minority bill manager the right to offer amendments to the pending business.

It would collapse the three separate motions to go to a Senate-House conference into one, but still require a vote of 60 to advance legislation.

It would shorten debate time for lower-level executive- and judicial-branch nominees, but not for Cabinet and Cabinet-level nominees or Supreme Court and appellate court judges.