RICHMOND — Sen.-elect Tim Kaine on Thursday expressed enthusiastic support for reforming the chamber's filibuster rules, echoing a chorus of freshmen eager to make changes on Capitol Hill after being left to watch a gridlocked Senate from the sidelines the past several years.
Mr. Kaine, a Democrat, said members need to be accountable to both their colleagues and their constituents, and that he would support the changes, regardless of which party controlled the body.
"The only way to have accountability connected with it is if the American public and your Senate colleagues [can] look at you and hear you out and decide whether you are actually Joan of Arc raising a very good point that should cause the Senate to slow down and not do something, or just somebody who's trying to gum up the works," Mr. Kaine said at The Associated Press' annual "AP Day at the Capitol" in Richmond.
Democrats will have a 55-45 majority once the 113th Congress is sworn in next month.
Sen.-elect Angus King, an independent who won Maine's open Senate seat and will caucus with the Democrats, took aim at filibusters during his campaign, saying the 60-vote threshold for legislation to allow Senate action is not part of the Constitution.
Indeed, the founding document does not establish a supermajority for most legislation, but it does give each chamber the power to write its own rules, and the Senate has adopted the 60-vote threshold as a debating technique, not a threshold for passage — though that's often what it becomes. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell repeatedly has accused Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of trying to "break the rules to change the rules" by threatening to use the majority-vote method, also nicknamed the "constitutional" or "nuclear" option, to push through filibuster changes.
Nevertheless, Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, who with others has sponsored legislation that would require filibustering senators to actually hold the floor, rather than merely threaten to block legislation, sent a fundraising missive in the waning days of the campaign urging donations for U.S. Senate candidates who "have committed to helping me fix the broken Senate by reforming the filibuster." Seven candidates won their races. In addition to Mr. Kaine, the list also included Democratic Sens.-elect Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Mazie K. Hirono of Hawaii and Christopher S. Murphy of Connecticut.
While newer members appear eager to get their feet wet on the issue, some of the more tenured Democrats have been cooler on the idea of using the 51-vote threshold, even if they are open to the changes themselves (another possible change would eliminate filibustering a motion to proceed, or starting debate on a bill). Two years ago, Mr. Reid resisted these kinds of rules changes, arguing that minority-party rights were too important to sacrifice for expediency. Instead, he reached a gentleman's agreement with Mr. McConnell: He would allow more amendments to be debated if Mr. McConnell agreed to stop some of the Republican filibusters.
But that agreement crumbled, with each side blaming the other, and Mr. Reid said he probably made a mistake in not pushing the changes back then.
This year's debate also marks a reversal from 2005, when Republicans held the Senate and Mr. McConnell supported the majority-vote method to change filibuster rules for judicial nominees. Mr. Reid opposed it.
Republicans ultimately didn't go through with that rules change after a bipartisan group of 14 senators struck a deal to curtail filibusters and approve more judges.
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