Democrats Unveil Rules Reform Package

The handful of “Senate Democrats proposing to overhaul the upper chamber’s rules and procedures released their roadmap Wednesday morning, but conspicuously missing from the package was an attempt to reduce the number of senators required to end a filibuster,” the Huffington Post reports.

While the four-page resolution would change the way the Senate considers legislation and nominations, 41 determined members of the minority would still have the ability to block Senate action.

The package does, however, include a reform that would tilt the balance of power toward the majority: Senators must actually be speaking on the Senate floor in order to keep the filibuster alive. If objecting senators finish speaking, the filibuster would end and the blocked bill in question would move to a final vote.

The rules-reform package, introduced by Sens. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), is slated to be discussed on the floor later Wednesday. It is, as one aide put it, "the culmination of discussions going on for months and months and months."

For those who argue “that the filibuster should be ended entirely, or at least reduced from its 60-vote threshold, the package falls short.” 

The Omaha World-Herald provides a quote that may illustrate why such a provision was not included:

Still, Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., has cautioned against turning the Senate into a place where simple majority rules. Nelson, at the end of 2009, cast the 60th and deciding vote to advance the health care overhaul past a GOP filibuster.

“The last thing we need to do is start changing rules, with 51 votes and simple majority, and make the Senate a smaller version of the House,” Nelson said. Filibusters are not allowed in the U.S. House, where majority rules.

Greg Sargent has a summary of the provisions in this package as provided by an aide to Senator Tom Udall:

Clear Path to Debate: Eliminate the Filibuster on Motions to Proceed

Makes motions to proceed not subject to a filibuster, but provides for two hours of debate. This proposal has had bipartisan support for decades and is often mentioned as a way to end the abuse of holds.

Eliminates Secret Holds

Prohibits one Senator from objecting on behalf of another, unless he or she discloses the name of the senator with the objection. This is a simple solution to address a longstanding problem.

Right to Amend: Guarantees Consideration of Amendments for both Majority and Minority

Protects the rights of the minority to offer amendments following cloture filing, provided the amendments are germane and have been filed in a timely manner.

This provision addresses comments of Republicans at last year’s Rules Committee hearings. Each time Democrats raised concerns about filibusters on motions to proceed, Republicans responded that it was their only recourse because the Majority Leader fills the amendment tree and prevents them from offering amendments. Our resolution provides a simple solution — it guarantees the minority the right to offer germane amendments.

Talking Filibuster: Ensures Real Debate

Following a failed cloture vote, Senators opposed to proceeding to final passage will be required to continue debate as long as the subject of the cloture vote or an amendment, motion, point of order, or other related matter is the pending business.

Expedite Nominations: Reduce Post-Cloture Time

Provides for two hours of post-cloture debate time for nominees. Post cloture time is meant for debating and voting on amendments — something that is not possible on nominations. Instead, the minority now requires the Senate use this time simply to prevent it from moving on to other business.

Read the resolution text here.

Update (1/6): The three lead sponsors of this reform package announced in a press release today that 26 Senators, including themselves, are backing it.

In addition to Udall, Harkin and Merkley, the resolution is currently co-sponsored by the following senators: Dick Durbin (IL), Amy Klobuchar (MN), Sherrod Brown (OH), Mark Begich (AK), Richard Blumenthal (CT), Kirsten Gillibrand (NY), Jeanne Shaheen (NH), Michael Bennet (CO), Barbara Boxer (CA), Benjamin L. Cardin (MD), Bob Casey (PA), Christopher Coons (DE), Al Franken (MN), Kay Hagan (NC), Frank Lautenberg (NJ), Joe Manchin (WV), Barbara Mikulski (MD), Jay Rockefeller (WV), Debbie Stabenow (MI), Jon Tester (MT), Mark Udall (CO), Mark Warner (VA), and Sheldon Whitehouse (RI).

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