WASHINGTON — The Senate approved a deal Thursday that will keep the chamber’s long-standing 60-vote threshold for halting a filibuster but streamline some of the chamber’s more cumbersome procedures.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., largely accepting the recommendations from a bipartisan team of senior senators, won broad bipartisan support for a package of reforms that will streamline operations but leave intact rules that give the minority more rights than any other legislative body in the world.
“I’m not personally, at this stage, ready to get rid of the 60-vote threshold,” Reid said in an interview Thursday with The Washington Post. “With the history of the Senate, we have to understand the Senate isn’t and shouldn’t be like the House.”
The compromise averted the Democratic majority’s threat to change the Senate’s substantive rules on a party-line vote, an action that would have broken new ground, as the chamber’s long-standing precedents call for a two-thirds majority to change the rules. Republicans warned that such a move by Reid, which they called a “nuclear option,” would have soured bipartisan talks on pending budget and debt legislation. The proposal passed on two separate votes — 78 to 16 and 86 to 9 — that implemented the new rules.
The new rules will essentially short-circuit one filibuster vote during the “motion to proceed” to a bill, when the chamber begins considering legislation. Republicans have increasingly filibustered the motion to begin debating legislation to slow the passage of bills or block them.
GOP senators say they use the move because Reid has been employing an even more arcane maneuver that prevents them from offering amendments to legislation. So the new reforms, crafted by Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and John McCain, R-Ariz., will guarantee that the opposing side will be able to offer at least two amendments if Reid tries to avert a chance to do so.
“It will get rid of major roadblocks that have gridlocked the Senate,” Levin told reporters leaving an afternoon briefing on the proposal. At the end of debate, any senator would still be able to force a filibuster vote and, if the majority fell short of 60 votes, the legislation would fail.
The biggest effect of the changes will be to thwart the power of a small band of conservatives who have used the Senate’s complicated rules to their advantage. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., an anti-spending advocate, has blocked or delayed hundreds of popular bills that he considers wasteful by threatening to use every procedural hurdle to slow-walk the legislation, even if it was expected to pass by more than 90 votes.
So Reid had to decide whether to devote an entire week or more to pass such noncontroversial measures, often choosing to hold off on a bill. Under the new proposal, if Reid and McConnell support a measure, they probably could move it to final passage in just a few days.
Additionally, lower-court nominees to the federal bench and lower-level nominees to federal agencies will have an easier confirmation process, with debate limited to a few hours.
Liberal activists and some junior Democrats said they were disappointed that the proposal did not fundamentally alter the filibuster practice. That wing of the party, led by Sens. Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Tom Udall of New Mexico, pushed to include a “talking filibuster” provision that would have forced the minority to hold the floor for old-fashioned marathon speaking sessions or else the majority would be able to pass legislation on a simple 51-vote margin.
“The agreement avoids measures that would actually raise the costs of Senate obstruction,” the group Fix the Senate Now said in a statement Thursday. The coalition of liberal advocacy groups has been running ads calling for the end of filibuster practices.
Merkley said in an interview Thursday that he is disappointed with the package but noted the “growing momentum” toward Senate reforms. His proposal two years ago, which was blocked almost in its entirety, included some of the things that were adopted Thursday by wide bipartisan votes. He vowed to continue pushing filibuster reforms if the Senate returns to its clogged, unproductive state of the past two years.
The “talking” proposal served as the fault line for Senate Democrats. Junior Democrats have pushed to reform Senate filibuster rules in hopes of making it easier to pass liberal legislation. They pointed to the health care debate and the compromises that had to be reached just to approve a more centrist law with 60 votes.
Senior Democrats emphasized making the chamber more efficient. Unlike their newly elected colleagues, these Democrats have served in the majority and the minority, and they consider the 60-vote threshold a bedrock principle of the Senate.
In his years in the minority, Reid used filibusters and other procedural hurdles to block construction of a nuclear waste facility outside Las Vegas. Levin and others used filibusters to protect wage laws for union members. Senior female Democrats used filibusters to preserve abortion rights when Republicans controlled every branch of the federal government.
These senior Democrats want more debates on legislation and issues, more votes on substantive matters, and they viewed Thursday’s proposals as a potentially significant breakthrough.
“It could well be the beginning of needed civility and needed bipartisanship around here. This could be a tipping point,” said Sen. Max Baucus of Montana.