By Alexander Bolton - 01/25/13 01:39 AM EST
The Senate enacted modest reforms to its filibuster rules with votes Thursday evening that kept bipartisan relations intact but left disappointed liberal groups fuming.
The reforms are the biggest changes to the Senate’s filibuster rules in decades but fell well short of drastic reforms demanded by labor unions and liberal-leaning advocacy groups.
The deal negotiated between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) provoked an outcry from liberal groups.
The enacted reforms do not include the implementation of the talking filibuster, which would require senators seeking to block legislation to actively hold the floor and debate. If debate stops, the pending matter moves to a simple majority vote, under this proposal.
Nor does it shift the burden of sustaining a filibuster onto the minority party by requiring senators to muster 41 votes to continue blocking legislation. Now the burden is on the majority to round up 60 votes to overcome a filibuster.
“To me the most important issue is I happen to believe it should not require 60 votes to pass legislation in the United States Senate,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), a liberal independent who caucuses with the Democrats. “I think this country faces enormous crises. The American people want us to deal with them and it’s impossible to deal with them when you need 60 votes and a supermajority.”
Instead, the reforms will speed up efforts by the majority leader to move to begin debates on new business and confirm sub-Cabinet executive-branch and district-court judicial nominees, which passed on a 78-16 vote. The reforms also make it easier to send legislation to conference with the House — that rule was changed on a 86-9 vote. It will also require senators to appear on the Senate floor in person to block a bill or nominee and actually debate if they want to prolong consideration of business after the Senate has voted to move on.
The centerpiece of the deal would empower the majority leader to prohibit filibusters on motions to proceed to new business if he allows the minority leader and the minority bill manager each an opportunity to vote on an amendment. Non-germane amendments would need to overcome a 60-vote threshold. The majority leader and majority bill manager would allow be allowed votes on amendments under this scenario.
"This is a bad decision based on fear — a decision that will ultimately hurt millions of people who would have been helped by progressive bills that Republicans are sure to filibuster,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.
Earlier this week, PCCC launched a 36-hour lobbying campaign pressing Democrats to use the nuclear option to mandate talking filibusters.
“Unfortunately, the incremental ‘reforms’ in the agreement do not go nearly far enough to deliver meaningful change,” the Fix the Senate Now coalition said in a statement.
The coalition includes the Alliance for Justice, the Brennan Center, the Communications Workers for America, Common Cause, the Sierra Club, United Auto Workers and Voices for Progress.
Fix the Senate Now organized a campaign of 100,000 phone calls and one million petition signatures delivered to Senate offices.
The reform package also stirred the ire of conservatives, who thought it went too far and trampled on the rights of the minority party.
Following the votes, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said Senate Democrats had succeeded in “seriously weakening the greatest deliberative legislative body in the world.
“The rules change limits the ability of Senators to offer amendments, stifles debate, and greases the skids for Democrats to implement more of their tax-and-spend agenda,” he said.
Heritage Action, a conservative advocacy group, urged Republicans to vote against it.
“Taken together, these changes represent a continued pattern of capitulation on minority rights. Allowing the majority to avoid an open debate will not fix the Senate; it will simply allow lawmakers – especially those with seniority – to avoid accountability,” Heritage Action wrote in a memo alerting lawmakers it would be considered a “key vote.”
Senior Democrats and Republicans, however, argued that it would speed the pace of business by allowing the Senate majority leader to more easily begin debate on legislation and nominees and help alleviate the backlog of nominees to federal district courts and low-ranking administration posts.
“I believe the outcome of this hard-earned compromise will be that there will be a greater degree of comity in the Senate which would allow us to achieve the legislative goals that all of us seek,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) who helped negotiate the principles that later became the basis for the Reid-McConnell deal.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who also helped negotiate the foundation of the agreement, argued that filibusters of motions to proceed to new business have been the biggest impediment to getting things done in the upper chamber.
“If we can get the bill to the floor for the managers to be able to work with our colleagues on amendments, we can legislate. The problem has been that we’ve not been able to get bills to the floor because of this blockage.”
Levin cited what he called the overuse of filibusters on motions to proceed.
President Obama praised the passage of filibuster reform.
“Too often over the past four years, a single Senator or a handful of Senators has been able to unilaterally block or delay bipartisan legislation for the sole purpose of making a political point,” Obama said in a statement late Thursday.
“At a time when we face critical decisions on a whole range of issues – from preventing further gun violence, to reforming our broken immigration system, to getting our fiscal house in order and creating good paying jobs – we cannot afford unnecessary obstruction. “
Even the most vocal advocates of drastic filibuster reform said the package made important progress toward reforming the Senate.
"The agreement that's been struck is a combination of rules and behavioral changes, and not as strong what many of us have been advocating,” said Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) a leading proponent of the talking filibuster. “However, it alters the way we deal with nominations, conference committees and motions to proceed -- all things I've been working toward.”
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Udall’s partner in calling for bold reform, said: “I’m disappointed that we didn’t take a bolder step to fix the Senate, but what is most important today is the deep determination of Senators to return the Senate to a more functional institution.
“If the modest steps taken today do not end the paralysis the Senate currently suffers, many Senators are determined to revisit this debate and explore stronger remedies,” he added.
--Ramsey Cox contributed.
--This report was originally published at 8:39 p.m. and last updated at 9:01 p.m.