Senate OKs small reforms to filibuster, ‘hold’ rules

Liberals’ sweeping changes rebuffed

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Falling far short of what some restive Democrats had hoped, the Senate agreed Thursday to modest updates in the way it does business including a change in the use of the filibuster and an end to secret “holds” on measures.

In a gentlemen’s agreement, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, vowed to use the filibuster less in exchange for a promise by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, to allow Republicans more opportunities to offer amendments to legislation.

And in an unusually uncontentious day of debate, the Senate voted to approve a pair rule changes designed to speed up chamber proceedings and to foster better relations between the two parties.

“What’s special about the Senate is that this body operates by consensus. It runs on a fuel made of comity and trust,” Mr. Reid said. “When abuses happen, or when colleagues act in bad faith, it dilutes and degrades that fuel, and the Senate stalls.”

Mr. McConnell said he was “happy” with the reforms.

“Of course, there will be times when there is no consensus and when either side may want to use all its rights to defeat a bill,” the Kentucky Republican said. “But we should endeavor to work together to follow the regular order where practicable and use our procedural options with discretion.”

But the Senate decisively rejected a more bold proposed filibuster revision, voting instead to retain rules that require 60 votes to overcome filibusters that are blocking votes on legislation or nominations.

The proposal, sponsored by Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, called for a gradual reduction in the number of senators needed to break a filibuster. The measure would’ve made it more difficult for the minority party to block majority measures. But Democrats who lost six seats in the Nov. 2 elections and worry they may be voted out as the majority party in 2012 were weary of chipping away too much at minority rights.

The senators also defeated a proposal that called for the Senate to return to the practice of requiring senators to remain on the chamber floor if they wanted to block legislation through a filibuster, a style portrayed by actor Jimmy Stewart in the classic 1939 film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”

Democrats, who control the Senate with 53 seats, had complained that Republicans unfairly used the filibuster to kill Democratic bills and paralyze the chamber.

Republicans countered that Mr. Reid routinely refused to allow Republican amendments on bills and that the filibuster was among the only tools available to block Democratic legislation they oppose.

A filibuster is a catchall term for delaying or blocking a majority vote on a bill by lengthy debate or other procedure and takes 60 votes to overcome and to proceed to a final vote. That means that as few as 41 minority members essentially can block legislation. The Senate now includes 47 Republicans.

The filibuster process doesn’t exist in the House, where simple majorities rule.

The Senate on Thursday also voted 92-4 to end the practice that allows a single senator to place a “secret hold” on measures, another blocking tactic routinely employed by the minority party.

Senators may still place holds on legislation and nominations, but must now identify themselves.

“The transparency and accountability in this resolution will ensure that the public’s business will be done in public, that bills and nominations are not swept under the rug, never again to see the light of day,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, who sponsored the measure.

The Senate also passed a resolution that will end the practice of reading aloud amendments that have been publicly available for three days, a move designed to save time.

The rule changes were pushed by a group of freshman Democrats, including Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, along with the five-term Mr. Harkin.

But Mr. Udall, who had hoped his colleagues would’ve accepted more sweeping changes, suggested he will continue to push for more rules reforms.

“I don’t think this is the end of the rules debate,” he said. “That’s why we have a full-time rules committee to take a look at this.

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