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Oregon senator takes center stage in Democratic filibuster debate

Sen. Dick DurbinDick DurbinLawmakers say fixing border crisis is Biden's job Number of migrants detained at southern border reaches 15-year high: reports Grassley, Cornyn push for Senate border hearing MORE (D-Ill.) convened a Zoom conference late last year to talk ideas about the filibuster and other Senate rules with his caucus.

By the second call, Durbin had turned the effort over to Sen. Jeff MerkleyJeff MerkleyGreen tech isn't all it's cracked up to be 2024 GOP White House hopefuls lead opposition to Biden Cabinet 33 Democrats urge Biden to shut down Dakota Access Pipeline MORE (D-Ore.), who has a lot of them. 

“He really took a personal interest in it. ... By the next time we had a conference call I said, ‘I want to turn this over to Jeff,’” Durbin said.

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Merkley, 64, is at the center of the caucus’s increasingly public debate over whether to reform the 60-vote legislative filibuster, a decision that will have deep ramifications for how many of President BidenJoe BidenBiden taps California workplace safety leader to head up OSHA Romney blasts end of filibuster, expansion of SCOTUS US mulling cash payments to help curb migration MORE’s big campaign promises can get through the evenly split 50-50 Senate, where Democrats control the majority because they hold the White House. 

Merkley has been intensely but quietly lobbying his colleagues about the potential for changes to the filibuster, as well as taking part in a bipartisan group discussing smaller rules changes, efforts he ties to a decision made last year when he ran for a third term. 

“I was wrestling with whether to run for reelection. I’ve got a limited number of years of life. I could do many different things. ... I thought well if I run for reelection it’s going to be because I make an all-out push to restore the Senate as a functioning body,” Merkley told The Hill, noting that he’s spoken to every member of the Democratic caucus over the past year.  

Those discussions became significantly less abstract earlier this year when Democrats swept the two Senate races in Georgia, adding significant fuel to calls from outside groups and progressives for Democrats to invoke the “nuclear option” in order to kill the filibuster.

Since then, a growing list of senators have come off the fence, either to call for the end of the 60-vote threshold altogether or to endorse significant reforms like changing it to a “talking filibuster” that would require opponents to physically stay on the floor to block a bill.

Others haven’t explicitly endorsed killing it off but are open to a discussion, including red-state Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden's infrastructure plan triggers definition debate Lawmakers say fixing border crisis is Biden's job Five things to watch on Biden infrastructure plan MORE (D-Mont.), Biden ally Sen. Chris CoonsChris Andrew CoonsFive takeaways from Biden's first budget proposal The Hill's Morning Report - Biden assails 'epidemic' of gun violence amid SC, Texas shootings Biden-GOP infrastructure talks off to rocky start MORE (D-Del.) and Sens. Jon OssoffJon OssoffMemo to millennials: Don't be mad at us Group launches M campaign against legislators who back 'suppression of voting rights' Republicans commit to taking lowest road MORE and Raphael WarnockRaphael WarnockGeorgia lawmaker arrested while governor signed election bill won't be prosecuted Democrats see opportunity as states push new voting rules Texas governor refuses to throw first pitch over MLB stance on Georgia MORE, the Georgia Democrats who gave the party control of the Senate. 

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Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineOvernight Defense: Congress looks to rein in Biden's war powers | Diversity chief at Special Operations Command reassigned during probe into social media posts Congress looks to rein in Biden's war powers House panel advances bill to repeal 2002 war authorization MORE (D-Va.), another senator in the middle of the debate, credited Merkley with “doing great work in talking and listening to everybody.” 

“He has been absolutely key to this and he understands this as well as anyone,” Kaine said.

Merkley said the shifts in the caucus reflect a broader recognition among Democrats that they can’t let Republicans block the party’s bigger policy promises when they have broad support. 

“People saw McConnell’s tactics under Obama ... so having seen it once people are like one, it’s not acceptable for us to tolerate that again and second of all our voters won’t tolerate it,” Merkley said, referring to Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellRomney blasts end of filibuster, expansion of SCOTUS McConnell, GOP slam Biden's executive order on SCOTUS Overnight Defense: Biden proposes 3B defense budget | Criticism comes in from left and right | Pentagon moves toward new screening for extremists MORE (Ky.). 

Given pressure to enact legislation on immigration, voting rights, democracy reform and gun control, Democrats are nearing a point when they’ll have to make a decision as a caucus on the filibuster. Senators say the tipping point is likely to come once a big bill has 50 Democratic votes — and perhaps some Republican support — but gets blocked from a 60-vote margin by the GOP.

Merkley, a Senate intern in the 1970s, said he “didn’t even recognize this institution” when he joined the Senate in 2009. He quickly set his sights on reforming the chamber’s rules, telling The Washington Post in December 2009 that an overuse of the filibuster was a “recipe for paralysis.”

It's been a slow slog. 

In 2011, Merkley and former Sen. Tom UdallTom UdallOregon senator takes center stage in Democratic filibuster debate Bipartisan bill seeks to raise fees for public lands drilling OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Haaland courts moderates during tense confirmation hearing | GOP's Westerman looks to take on Democrats on climate change | White House urges passage of House public lands package MORE (D-N.M.), who retired last year, saw their proposal to gut the filibuster rejected. Instead, McConnell and Sen. Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidThe Memo: Biden seeks a secret weapon — GOP voters Tensions flare over Senate filibuster McConnell offers scathing 'scorched earth' filibuster warning MORE (D-Nev.) reached a “gentlemen’s agreement” where Republicans would limit their filibusters if Reid agreed to open up the floor to more amendment votes. 

In 2013, Democrats did use the nuclear option to end filibusters on lower courts and most executive nominations, which Merkley and Udall touted as a victory. In 2017, Republicans in the Senate ended the use of the 60-vote filibuster on Supreme Court nominations, a move that helped former President TrumpDonald TrumpRomney blasts end of filibuster, expansion of SCOTUS McConnell, GOP slam Biden's executive order on SCOTUS US raises concerns about Iran's seriousness in nuclear talks MORE add three justices to the court.

To reform the filibuster this time, every Democratic senator would have to vote to change the rules. Merkley said he is discussing a wide array of potential reforms with the caucus. 

Senate Majority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerThe first Southern state legalizes marijuana — what it means nationally H.R. 1/S. 1: Democrats defend their majorities, not honest elections McCarthy asks FBI, CIA for briefing after two men on terror watchlist stopped at border MORE (D-N.Y.) has pledged that Democrats will enact a “bold” agenda but hasn’t revealed what steps he’s willing to take if Republicans block legislation. He has said that if Republicans block the agenda, “everything is on the table.”

To change the filibuster, Merkley will need to win over several key colleagues who are against ending the filibuster, including Sens. Kyrsten SinemaKyrsten SinemaManchin throws cold water on using budget reconciliation The strategy Biden needs to pass his infrastructure plan The Hill's Morning Report - Biden bumps up vaccine eligibility amid 'life or death' race MORE (D-Ariz.) and Joe ManchinJoe ManchinRomney blasts end of filibuster, expansion of SCOTUS Five takeaways from Biden's first budget proposal Parkland parent pressures Manchin on gun reform: 'You represent the nation' MORE (D-W.Va.), who have gone public with their opposition.

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Manchin, however, praised Merkley as a constructive sounding board on the chamber’s rules, even while acknowledging they represent politically different constituencies. 

“Jeff is truly, I believe, a good soul. A good person with a good soul and heart,” Manchin said. “I take him seriously. ... He keeps you thinking and that’s good.”  

Durbin credited Merkley for helping circulate that idea of reverting to a “talking filibuster” among Democrats. 

“Well, there's been a lot of work done behind the scenes. ... Jeff Merkley has been working on this for months, and I was part of that effort, but he really led it and deserves credit for it,” Durbin said. “His notion is that we reach a point where we say, if you're going to have a filibuster, then for goodness sakes, stand at your desk and speak.” 

Though Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneSchumer kicks into reelection mode The Hill's Morning Report - Biden shifts on filibuster Biden allies eye two-step strategy on infrastructure MORE (R-S.D.) indicated that some Republicans had previously been interested in a talking filibuster, McConnell shut down questions from reporters in a recent press conference about making any changes. Senators involved in the bipartisan group looking at smaller changes, like reducing the number of procedural hurdles or guaranteed amendments, say they are also making little progress. 

Sen. Mike RoundsMike RoundsCongress looks to rein in Biden's war powers Columbine and the era of the mass shooter, two decades on GOP senator tweets statue of himself holding gun to Biden: 'Come and take it' MORE (R-S.D.) noted that he had talked to Merkley about the smaller changes and that “we want this place to work.” 

“[But] so far we don’t have agreement on anything, but we continue to talk about it,” Rounds said, adding that “right now let’s face it the Senate is very dysfunctional.”