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Oregon senator takes center stage in Democratic filibuster debate

Sen. Dick DurbinDick DurbinAmerica's Jewish communities are under attack — Here are 3 things Congress can do Schumer 'exploring' passing immigration unilaterally if talks unravel On The Money: Incomes, consumer spending soared in March | Harris, senators work behind scenes on jobs package | Biden cancels some border wall construction 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 MerkleySenate Democrats push Biden over raising refugee cap Bipartisan Senate group calls for Biden to impose more sanctions on Myanmar junta A proposal to tackle congressional inside trading: Invest in the US 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 BidenDefense lawyers for alleged Capitol rioters to get tours of U.S. Capitol Sasse to introduce legislation giving new hires signing bonuses after negative jobs report Three questions about Biden's conservation goals 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) TesterAmericans for Prosperity launches campaign targeting six Democrats to oppose ending filibuster Overnight Defense: Gillibrand makes new push for military sexual assault reform | US troops begin leaving Afghanistan | Biden budget delay pushes back annual defense policy bill Gillibrand makes new push for military sexual assault reform MORE (D-Mont.), Biden ally Sen. Chris CoonsChris Andrew CoonsUS, Iran signal possible breakthroughs in nuke talks How the United States can pass Civics 101 Americans for Prosperity launches campaign targeting six Democrats to oppose ending filibuster MORE (D-Del.) and Sens. Jon OssoffJon OssoffThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden launches blitz for jobs plan with 'thank you, Georgia' Biden marks 100th day plugging jobs plan in Georgia Georgia Republican secretary of state hits Loeffler as 'weak,' 'fake Trumper' MORE and Raphael WarnockRaphael WarnockDemocrats cool on Crist's latest bid for Florida governor Alabama museum unveils restored Greyhound bus for Freedom Rides' 60th anniversary The Hill's Morning Report - Biden launches blitz for jobs plan with 'thank you, Georgia' MORE, the Georgia Democrats who gave the party control of the Senate. 

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Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineManchin on collision course with Warren, Sanders On The Money: Incomes, consumer spending soared in March | Harris, senators work behind scenes on jobs package | Biden cancels some border wall construction Harris, senators work behind scenes on jobs package 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 McConnellAssaults on Roe v Wade increasing Trump spokesman says defeating Cheney a top priority Biden to meet with GOP senators amid infrastructure push 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 UdallStudy: Chemical used in paint thinners caused more deaths than EPA identified Oregon senator takes center stage in Democratic filibuster debate Bipartisan bill seeks to raise fees for public lands drilling MORE (D-N.M.), who retired last year, saw their proposal to gut the filibuster rejected. Instead, McConnell and Sen. Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidBiden's first 100 days is stylistic 'antithesis' of Trump The Memo: Washington's fake debate on 'bipartisanship' The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Tax March - CDC in limbo on J&J vax verdict; Rep. Brady retiring 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 TrumpThe Memo: The Obamas unbound, on race Iran says onus is on US to rejoin nuclear deal on third anniversary of withdrawal Assaults on Roe v Wade increasing 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 SchumerBiden to meet with GOP senators amid infrastructure push The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Emergent BioSolutions - Upbeat jobs data, relaxed COVID-19 restrictions offer rosier US picture How to fast-track climate action? EPA cutting super pollutant HFCs 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 SinemaEx-McSally aide pleads guilty to stealing over 0K in campaign funds Sinema urges Biden to take 'bold' action at border: 'This is a crisis' Bowser on Manchin's DC statehood stance: He's 'not right' MORE (D-Ariz.) and Joe ManchinJoe ManchinBiden's elitist work-family policy won't work for most families The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Emergent BioSolutions - Upbeat jobs data, relaxed COVID-19 restrictions offer rosier US picture Manchin on collision course with Warren, Sanders 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 ThuneCheney fight stokes cries of GOP double standard for women Trump muddles Republican messaging on Afghanistan The Memo: Trump's critics face wrath of GOP base 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 RoundsSenate GOP keeps symbolic earmark ban Senate confirms SEC chief Gensler to full five-year term Congress looks to rein in Biden's war powers 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.”