Senate Changes Rule on Filibusters, Keeps Supermajority

The U.S. Senate revised its rules to make it harder for a single member to slow progress on legislation, while continuing to let the minority party block action by insisting on a 60-vote supermajority for bills to proceed.

Senators approved the change last night on a pair of votes. Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, agreed to the plan earlier yesterday in Washington.

The agreement headed off Reid’s threat to have Democrats impose their own rules, which “would have turned gridlock into a meltdown,” said Democratic Senator Carl Levin of Michigan.

A supporter of broader rule changes, Democratic Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, called the accord “a baby, baby step.” It “does nothing to alter the fact we have now become a de facto, 60-vote Senate” in which support from 60 of the chamber’s 100 members is needed to advance major legislation, he said.

Reid has complained that Republicans abuse rules allowing use of the filibuster procedure to block legislation and confirmation of presidential nominees.

While the compromise isn’t as far-reaching as what Reid and other Democrats had sought, it does pare back the ability of an individual or small group of senators to stall legislation backed by both parties’ leaders. Unchanged is the minority’s ability to demand a 60-vote threshold to advance legislation once it has reached the Senate floor. Democrats control 55 Senate votes to 45 for the Republicans.

Minority Decides

Harkin said President Barack Obama’s second-term agenda “will not get very far” as long as Republicans can block legislation with 41 votes. “We still have a system here where the minority will decide what happens,” he said.

Obama said in a statement that he is “hopeful” that the “bipartisan agreement will pave the way for the Senate to take meaningful action in the days and weeks ahead.”

The compromise measure speeds the process for bringing bills to the floor in cases where there’s an agreement that each side will have a chance to offer two amendments to the legislation. It wouldn’t restrict filibusters on passage of legislation or presidential nominations.

Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, the chamber’s second-ranking Democrat, said he didn’t know how much difference the changes will make.

‘To Be Seen’

“It remains to be seen,” Durbin said. “If there’s a constructive attitude” because leaders reached a bipartisan agreement, “it may help things.”

The agreement “could have been worse,” said Republican Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri. The changes aren’t necessary, he said, “But if the majority insists we do some things to expedite procedures, this does that without doing irreparable damage to the Senate as an institution.”

Senator Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who caucuses with Democrats, said the plan “doesn’t go anywhere near far enough in my view,” and he voted against the changes.

“What we have to ask ourselves is: Should we need 60 votes to pass major pieces of legislation? I don’t think we should,” Sanders said.

The revised rules reduce the maximum debate time, to eight hours from 30 hours, on nominations by the president after they clear the 60-vote threshold for ending a filibuster. That provision wouldn’t apply to federal appellate or Supreme Court nominees or to candidates for Cabinet posts.

‘Talking Filibuster’

The plan excluded a proposal by some Democratic senators, including Harkin, Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Tom Udall of New Mexico, to require senators who want to filibuster a bill to hold the floor and speak until one side gives in.

The so-called “talking filibuster” was made famous in the 1939 film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” where the title character, played by Jimmy Stewart, collapses from exhaustion after speaking on the Senate floor for 24 hours nonstop to delay a vote on a bill he opposes.

Reid and McConnell also reached an informal agreement to insist that senators who want to continue debate, after 60 or more senators agree to limit it, must take the floor and stay there during the allotted remaining time. Currently, there is no such requirement.

Changing the rules entailed votes on two resolutions. One, aimed at expediting procedures for consideration of legislation and some nominations, was approved 78-16; it needed 60 votes to pass. The other was a change to standing rules for bringing measures to the floor and passed 86-9; it had needed 67 votes.

McConnell ‘Relieved’

McConnell said in a statement he was relieved that Reid backed off threats to change the rules with the votes of 51 Democrats, an untested tactic referred to as the “nuclear option.”

“No party has ever broken the rules of the Senate to change those rules,” McConnell said. “I’m glad such an irreparably damaging precedent will not be set.”

Reid said in a statement that lawmakers “took steps towards ending gridlock in the Senate, and making this body a more efficient place while still respecting the rights of the minority.”

Levin joined McConnell in expressing relief the agreement avoided the “nuclear option.” He recalled that Democrats took “great umbrage” in 2005 when they were in the minority and then-Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, threatened to use such a strategy to curb Democratic filibusters against President George W. Bush’s judicial nominees.

“We just can’t have a situation in the Senate where the majority can decide what the rules are at any time,” Levin said. Otherwise, he added, the Senate would become like the House, “which adopts rules every two years to fit the majority’s own needs.”

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