Filibuster reform is a headache for Reid

Filibuster reform has become a headache for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

Reid is stuck in the middle, between liberal senators pushing hard for drastic reform and senior Democrats balking at changing the culture of the upper chamber. 

Powerful liberal groups and left-leaning lawmakers see filibuster reform as necessary to advancing President Obama’s second-term agenda, which includes immigration reform and gun-control legislation. 

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“The president can’t act on legislation if the Senate can’t act on legislation, and therefore it’s so important that we end the secret silent filibuster that has plagued this body,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), a leading proponent of reform.

A coalition of liberal groups met at the headquarters of the National Education Association (NEA) shortly after Obama won reelection to set strategy for advancing his second-term agenda. One of the primary goals emerging from the meeting was enacting filibuster reform.

Senate Democrats debated how to proceed during a lunch meeting that stretched for more than an hour Tuesday — and left the room with little resolved. 

Reid has begun to show signs of impatience with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), with whom he has been negotiating for weeks. He said Tuesday that he and McConnell have made progress, but added, “[W]e’ve got a long way to go.”

The Nevada Democrat said he would give Republicans another 24 to 36 hours to agree to filibuster reform and then trigger the so-called nuclear option. This controversial tactic would allow him to change the Senate rules with a simple majority vote. 

“I hope within the next 24 to 36 hours we can get something we agree on. If not, we’re going to move forward on what I think needs to be done. The caucus will support me on that,” Reid told reporters. 

Although its use has been threatened in the past to spur the minority party to agree to reforms, the nuclear option has never been used to change the standing rules, say parliamentary experts. 

Reid has come under heavy pressure from liberal advocacy groups to drastically limit the minority party’s power to filibuster and delay legislation.

The Progressive Change Campaign Committee on Tuesday launched a 36-hour pressure campaign targeting Democratic senators to back using the nuclear option to implement an ambitious reform package. 

Liberal activists have mobilized to press senior and centrist Democrats to endorse the package crafted by Sens. Merkley, Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). At the bill’s heart is the talking-filibuster reform, which would require lawmakers who want to block legislation to actively hold the floor and debate for hours. If there is no further debate, the Senate would proceed to a simple majority vote.

Their measure would also prohibit filibusters on motions to proceed to new business, expedite the process for sending Senate legislation to conference negotiations with the House and reduce the amount of floor time needed to move nominees once the Senate has voted to end debate on them. 

Reid, however, has received pushback from senior and centrist Democrats such as Sens. Carl Levin (Mich.), Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), Max Baucus (Mont.), Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Mark Pryor (Ark.), who are not fond of the nuclear option.

“I have not favored that approach. I have a lot of troubles with the nuclear option for the same reasons as then-Sen. Kennedy and then-Sen. Biden and a lot of senators have had with amending the rules by majority vote when the rules call for two-thirds vote,” Levin said in reference to former Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Vice President Biden, who served 36 years in the Senate. 

“I have expressed very major concerns with using the constitutional option,” Levin added, using a term favored by Merkley and Udall, who argue the Constitution empowers the majority leader to set the Senate’s rules on the first day of a new Congress. 

Feinstein has also weighed in, hampering Reid’s leverage in talks with McConnell. 

“I would hope that we wouldn’t have to use the nuclear option. I would hope that the two parties can agree, and there’s some indication that that might happen,” she said.

In a statement released Tuesday evening, Merkley said, “Leader Reid has left open two paths to rules changes. … We face big challenges, and we can’t tackle those challenges if we miss this rare opportunity to end the paralysis of the Senate.”

The White House supports filibuster reform, but has not endorsed a specific bill. 

Reid has extended the first legislative day of the 113th Congress indefinitely to prolong the threat of the nuclear or constitutional option and give himself more leverage with McConnell. Extending the first legislative day still allows senators to debate and vote on legislation. 

Faced with resistance from senior Democrats, Reid has attempted to negotiate with McConnell a package of more modest reforms that could be implemented with 60 votes as a standing order of the Senate. 

The package would not include the talking filibuster, and a Democratic aide expressed doubt McConnell would agree to a reform proposed by Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) to require the minority party to muster 41 votes to sustain a filibuster. Under current rules, the majority party must gather 60 votes to end dilatory debate. 

Levin said he believes Reid and 

McConnell will negotiate an agreement based on a bipartisan proposal co-sponsored by Levin and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). That plan would eliminate the filibuster on the motion to proceed in exchange for guaranteeing the minority leader and the minority bill manager the right to offer one amendment each to pending legislation. 

Proponents of far-reaching filibuster reform have criticized the Levin-McCain proposal.

— Updated at 8:25 p.m.