McConnell Says Reid's Filibuster Reforms Will Destroy the Senate. Not Really

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Speaker of the House John Boehner, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell speak to the media after meeting with President Barack Obama in 2012 Photograph by Roger Wollenberg/Getty Images

The big fight in Washington this week will be the showdown between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and his Republican counterpart, Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), over the filibuster. Reid and the Democrats—fed up with the GOP’s increasing use (they’d say “abuse”) of the procedural tactic that forces the majority party to amass 60 votes rather than the standard 51 to get anything done—are threatening to change the rules as soon as Tuesday morning, if McConnell and the GOP don’t stop blocking confirmation of a raft of presidential nominees. They include Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, Gina McCarthy to head the Environmental Protection Agency, and Richard Cordray, director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

“What we have [in the Senate] is not ‘advise and consent;’ it’s ‘obstruct and delay,’” Reid said at a prearranged trash-talking event at the liberal Center for American Progress in Washington, which was meant to pressure Republicans and shape the debate. “We’re wasting time, day after day.” He added: “It’s time for course correction that compels the two parties to work with each other.”

Reid’s “course correction” is considered an abomination of historic scale by McConnell, since it would limit the minority party’s power. “This will kill the Senate,” McConnell declared last week.

Despite the hyperbole, Reid’s proposal would do no such thing. Reid indicated that unless Republicans relent, Democrats will vote Tuesday morning on what has become known as the “nuclear option.” That means allowing a change to the filibuster rules by a simple majority rather than the 67 votes required to change the rules under “regular order.” At CAP, Reid sought to convince his audience that this wasn’t the radical departure from the norm that Republicans are claiming. He stated repeatedly that rules changes had been made this way 18 times during his tenure.

Reid’s threat, should he carry through with it, would not eliminate the filibuster. It would not mean that future bills would automatically pass with a simple majority. It would not mean that the minority party couldn’t still delay Obama’s judicial nominees. It would only prevent Republicans from using the filibuster to block a president’s appointees. In that sense, it’s the mildest kind of reform.

In response to reporters’ questions afterward, Reid made clear that he doesn’t plan to go further. “I have no intent of changing the rule for legislation,” he said.

Leading up to today’s event, the big question among Washington reporters and insiders was whether this spat was a carefully coordinated bit of theater that would allow Reid and McConnell eventually to strike a deal that would allow both sides to save face—or whether Reid’s threat was legitimate. The answer still isn’t clear, although Reid made every effort to persuade listeners that he was for real. What does seem clear, though, is that a resolution looks as if it will come sooner than expected—which, in this era of endless gridlock, counts as big news.

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