Dem leaders jockey for filibuster reform; build ties to junior senators

Sens. Dick Durbin and Charles Schumer are each considering proposals to rein in the minority’s power to filibuster.

The second- and third-ranking Senate Democrats are talking separately with junior colleagues about a move to make majority government easier.

ADVERTISEMENT
Drawing attention to the weapon of choice for Republicans could take the attention off of Democrats’ strategy of moving healthcare reform using the reconciliation process and emphasize the minority’s efforts to block President Barack Obama’s agenda.

Even if Democrats do not go forward with legislation to curb the filibuster, simply discussing it could rally liberal voters and get the public on their side at a time when the healthcare legislation hangs in the balance.

For the two ambitious leaders, the exercise could serve another purpose: building stronger ties with junior colleagues as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s future is in doubt.

If Reid (D-Nev.) loses reelection, Durbin and Schumer are expected to run against each other to fill his spot. Democrats elected in 2006 and 2008, who are among the strongest proponents of Senate rules reform, represent a trove of votes.

 Schumer (N.Y.), vice chairman of the Senate Democratic Conference, has told colleagues that he plans to hold hearings on reforming the filibuster at the Senate Rules Committee, which he chairs, according to Democratic sources.

“He’s told me informally that he’s going to have hearings on the history of the filibuster,” said Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), who is pushing a proposal to change the Senate rules with 51 votes at the start of the next Congress in January.

Schumer has tentatively scheduled his first hearing on the filibuster for March 24.

Durbin (Ill.), the Senate majority whip and Schumer’s possible rival for the Democratic leader position, has also reached out to freshman and sophomore Democrats behind the scenes to explore reforming the Senate rules.

“Everything’s on the table for discussion,” said Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), who has been involved with Durbin’s working group.

Lawmakers expect the efforts will help educate the public about how Republicans have abused Senate rules, in Democrats’ view, and turn the spotlight away from Democrats’ plans to finish healthcare reform with only 51 votes by invoking the special budget rules.

It could also set the stage for Democrats invoking a procedure known as the constitutional option — which critics call the nuclear option — to set new rules for the Senate, and possibly take away or drastically curb the minority’s ability to block legislation and presidential nominations.

There is growing support among Democratic lawmakers for reforming the Senate’s filibuster rule and other procedures, such as the use of anonymous holds to delay bills or executive- and judicial-branch nominees.

Democrats have begun to talk more openly in recent days about the need to reform the filibuster rule, including vulnerable freshman Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), who penned an op-ed last week for the left-leaning Huffington Post.

When asked about the possibility of reforming the filibuster rule, Reid has casually dismissed it by saying that changes to the Senate rules require 67 votes — an impossibility when Republicans control 41 seats.

ADVERTISEMENT
But lawmakers who have studied Senate history say there are precedents since World War II, when the Senate majority changed the chamber’s rules after threatening to use the constitutional option. Under such a scenario, the chamber’s presiding officer, presumably Senate President and Vice President Joe Biden, would recognize a motion to adopt new rules for the 112th Congress. Republicans would object, but Biden would likely overrule them and his ruling would be sustained by a majority vote.

The leading proponent of this approach is Udall, who argues the Constitution allows each chamber of Congress to set its rules with a majority vote at the beginning of each new Congress.

Udall supports exploring options to reform the filibuster rule and defends the right of Democrats to change it by majority vote.

 Schumer has kept his work on filibuster reform quiet.

“Go talk to the Rules Committee,” Schumer said when asked about the possibility of holding hearings.

Begich said he, Durbin and other senators are reviewing proposals by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) to rewrite the filibuster rule so that Democrats would not need 60 votes to pass legislation in 2011 and beyond.

Under Harkin’s proposal, the first vote to end a filibuster would require 60 votes. If it failed, a second vote could be scheduled two days later that would only require 57 votes to end debate. After another two days elapsed, a third vote to cut off debate would require only 54 votes. After two more days, a fourth vote could be held to cut off debate with only 51 votes.

“As you know, Tom Udall has some ideas, which I support, and Harkin has some ideas; so it’s really to take these ideas in a collective manner and figure out what’s the right approach to make sure filibusters can be used in a proper forum but not used for every single piece of legislation just as a delay tactic to work against the American people. That’s what we’re fed up with,” said Begich, who was elected in 2008.

Durbin downplayed his role: “We’re just studying some options, but it’s not a working group.”

Other lawmakers, however, have characterized the effort as a working group and say they expected to hold a series of meetings.

Reid has also decided to get involved in discussions over GOP obstruction and ways to combat it. He has scheduled a meeting with the Democratic classes of 2006 and 2008 for Wednesday afternoon, where lawmakers expect to discuss filibuster reform and other issues.

Reid declined to comment on the meeting when queried by The Hill.

Junior Democrats are not the only ones calling for an overhaul of the filibuster rule. Senior lawmakers have also chimed in.

“I think it’s a dated rule from a past century,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who said she would support Harkin’s proposal.