Oregon senator takes center stage in Democratic filibuster debate

Sen. Dick DurbinDick DurbinNew York gun rights case before Supreme Court with massive consequences  Schumer leaves door open for second vote on bipartisan infrastructure deal Bipartisan group says it's still on track after setback on Senate floor 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 MerkleyBipartisan congressional commission urges IOC to postpone, relocate Beijing Games Lawmakers urge Biden to make 'bold decisions' in nuclear review This week: Senate faces infrastructure squeeze 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 authorizes up to 0M for Afghan refugees Poll: 73 percent of Democratic voters would consider voting for Biden in the 2024 primary Biden flexes presidential muscle on campaign trail with Virginia's McAuliffe 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) TesterBipartisan group says it's still on track after setback on Senate floor GOP blocks infrastructure debate as negotiators near deal GOP negotiators say they'll vote to start infrastructure debate next week MORE (D-Mont.), Biden ally Sen. Chris CoonsChris Andrew CoonsKey Biden ally OK with dropping transit from infrastructure package Democrats criticize FBI's handling of tip line in Kavanaugh investigation Bipartisan group says it's still on track after setback on Senate floor MORE (D-Del.) and Sens. Jon OssoffJon OssoffObamaCare 2.0 is a big funding deal Senate Democrats call for Medicaid-like plan to cover non-expansion states Stacey Abrams PAC tops 0 million raised MORE and Raphael WarnockRaphael WarnockObamaCare 2.0 is a big funding deal Kaseya ransomware attack highlights cyber vulnerabilities of small businesses Lawmakers spend more on personal security in wake of insurrection MORE, the Georgia Democrats who gave the party control of the Senate. 

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Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineSenate GOP likely to nix plan Schumer feels pressure from all sides on spending strategy Manchin signals he'll be team player on spending deal 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 McConnellHas Trump beaten the system? Yellen to Congress: Raise the debt ceiling or risk 'irreparable harm' The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Goldman Sachs - Tokyo Olympics kick off with 2020-style opening ceremony 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 UdallOvernight Defense: Milley reportedly warned Trump against Iran strikes | Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer killed in Afghanistan | 70 percent of active-duty military at least partially vaccinated Biden nominates former Sen. Tom Udall as New Zealand ambassador Senate Democrats befuddled by Joe Manchin MORE (D-N.M.), who retired last year, saw their proposal to gut the filibuster rejected. Instead, McConnell and Sen. Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidSenate hopefuls embrace nuking filibuster Biden fails to break GOP 'fever' Nevada governor signs law making state first presidential primary 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 TrumpPoll: 73 percent of Democratic voters would consider voting for Biden in the 2024 primary Biden flexes presidential muscle on campaign trail with Virginia's McAuliffe Has Trump beaten the system? 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 SchumerMcConnell pushes vaccines, but GOP muddles his message Biden administration stokes frustration over Canada Schumer blasts McCarthy for picking people who 'supported the big lie' for Jan. 6 panel 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 SinemaBipartisan group says it's still on track after setback on Senate floor CBC honors Black women advocates amid voting rights battle GOP blocks infrastructure debate as negotiators near deal MORE (D-Ariz.) and Joe ManchinJoe ManchinWhy Biden's Interior Department isn't shutting down oil and gas Overnight Energy: Senate panel advances controversial public lands nominee | Nevada Democrat introduces bill requiring feds to develop fire management plan | NJ requiring public water systems to replace lead pipes in 10 years Transit funding, broadband holding up infrastructure deal 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 ThuneFrustration builds as infrastructure talks drag On The Money: Senate braces for nasty debt ceiling fight | Democrats pushing for changes to bipartisan deal | Housing prices hit new high in June Transit funding, broadband holding up infrastructure deal 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 RoundsBipartisan group says it's still on track after setback on Senate floor Schumer sets up key vote on bipartisan deal Graham: Bipartisan infrastructure pay-fors are insufficient 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.”