Senators try to head off ‘nuclear’ filibuster fight

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Seeking to head off a poisonous debate over filibuster rules at the beginning of the new Congress, a gang of eight senators on Friday said they’ve worked out new procedures that could grease the legislative wheels while still preserving minority rights.

Sens. John McCain and Carl Levin, a senior Republican and a senior Democrat, led the effort which they said would make it easier to vote on some lower-court judges and would give the majority party a way to bring bills to the Senate floor faster, in exchange for guaranteeing the minority the right to offer amendments to legislation.

They were acting with less than a week to go before the new Congress is sworn in and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, follows through on his pledge to alter the rules to eliminate one of the chances to filibuster.

Mr. Reid planned to push through that rules change using a 51-vote majority — which has been nicknamed the “nuclear option” — rather than the two-thirds vote most rules changes require.

“I really don’t think that most of us who have been around for awhile want to see a nuclear Senate,” Mr. McCain told reporters.

The gang of eight isn’t enough to derail Mr. Reid’s plans, but it does signal a deep wariness among some senior lawmakers to fundamentally change the workings of the chamber.

Under current rules minority parties get two chances to filibuster bills — first even before the bill gets to the floor, and again before final passage. The gang of eight proposed giving the majority leader another option to avoid that first filibuster, but only if he guarantees that the minority will get to offer at least two amendments to the bill.

Right now, the majority argues it is too tough to move to bills, and the minority argues they get shut out of offering amendments, which has always been a key tradition of the Senate.

Mr. McCain and Mr. Levin are an influential pair, having just shepherded the annual defense policy bill through a Senate that has been unable to do much of anything over the last two years.

They were joined by Democratic Sens. Charles E. Schumer of New York, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland, and Republican Sens. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, John Barrasso of Wyoming and Jon Kyl of Arizona — though Mr. Kyl is leaving at the end of this Congress.

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