Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid confirmed Monday he will push to change Senate rules and curtail some Republican filibusters next year, setting up a major test of collegiality and power politics in the usually chummy chamber that bills itself as "the world's most exclusive club."
Republicans said that if Mr. Reid goes ahead, he'll not only ruin the unique nature of the Senate, but he'll poison chances for bipartisan cooperation just as members of the next Congress are taking their seats in January.
The back-and-forth spilled over onto the Senate floor Monday, with Mr. Reid facing off against Sen. Mitch McConnell, the chamber's top Republican, in a rare and acrid head-to-head debate.
"This is no exaggeration. What these Democrats have in mind is a fundamental change to the way the Senate operates, for the purposes of consolidating their own power," the Kentucky Republican said. "In the name of efficiency, they would prevent the very possibility of compromise and threaten to make the disputes of the past few years look like mere pillow fights."
The fight is not only about the filibuster, but the way the Senate writes all of its rules — of which the filibuster is just one example.
Mr. Reid plans to use his newly expanded majority to make the changes on the first day of the new Congress next year, which is the only time rules can be adopted on a simple majority vote. Any other time, a rules change requires a two-third vote, and most major changes are done through the two-thirds method.
Mr. Reid, though, said Republican blockades of bill after bill have left him no choice but to use the majority route — dubbed the "nuclear option" in some quarters — and said voters in this month's elections showed they want faster action in the chamber.
"We're going to follow the rules to make a couple of minor changes to make this place more efficient, and that's what the Senate has always been about, is revising itself to become more efficient," Mr. Reid said, dismissing GOP "threats" as bluster and wondering, "What more could they do to us?"
All sides agreed the Senate is broken. According to The Washington Times' legislative futility index, it posted its worst session on record in 2011, and halfway through 2012 it was on pace for the second-worst.
Mr. Reid said the problem is Republicans' delaying tactics. He said they filibuster whether to even begin debating a bill, and then can also filibuster the bill's passage, too.
He is proposing eliminating that first chance to filibuster, though said he'd preserve the minority's right to filibuster a bill's final passage. He also said he'd push to make senators have to occupy the floor to conduct a filibuster, which could discourage some of them.
Though conducted in the formal style of the Senate, with each man referring to the other as "my friend," Monday's debate was anything but collegial.
Mr. McConnell said the chamber's pace wasn't a result of the rules, but rather to Mr. Reid's inability to do his job well.
The Republican said Mr. Reid too often blocks the GOP from offering any amendments, which leaves them no choice but to block the bill.
Mr. McConnell said that instead of changing rules, Mr. Reid should use "the fatigue factor" to schedule late-night and weekend sessions and wear down opponents.
Mr. Reid retorted that he knows the filibuster rule better than any other member in history, except for the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat whose mastery of the chamber was unchallenged.
Mr. Reid said he thinks that Byrd would have worked with him on the rules change.
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 would agree to stop some of the GOP filibusters.
But that agreement crumbled, with each side blaming the other, and Mr. Reid now says he probably made a mistake in not pushing the changes back then.
Mr. Reid is also being pulled by a number of Democratic senators who came from the House, where the majority party has stiffer control and the minority has few options for affecting legislation. After watching the Senate bog down on bill after bill, those Democrats concluded the only way to clear a legislative path was to cut down on the obstructive tools senators have.
Cutting back on filibusters would not eliminate minority obstructions.
On Monday, Republicans blocked a bill to give sportsmen more access to federal lands by using a parliamentary budget maneuver that, like the filibuster, requires a 60-vote threshold.
The filibuster is not part of the Constitution. Rather, it is a technique used to take advantage of the Senate's tradition of unlimited debate.
Until the beginning of the 20th century, there was no way to cut off a debate. In 1917, senators voted to impose a limit, but only if two-thirds of them voted to do so, leading to marathon floor sessions when the majority tried to break the minority's will.
It was a relatively rare technique, used only about once a year for the first five decades.
In 1975, senators reduced the threshold needed to end debate to a three-fifths vote, but put the burden on the majority to muster that support. That ended the marathon sessions and ushered in the era of "drive-by filibuster," where the minority can more easily block action.
Now, it's common for senators to hold 50 or more filibuster votes a year.
Democrats tested the limits of filibustering last decade when they blocked many of President George W. Bush's appeals court nominees, leading Republicans to threaten to change the rules by a simple majority vote — exactly what they now accuse Mr. Reid of trying to do.
Back then, a bipartisan group of 14 lawmakers agreed to block the rules change, but also agreed to end some of the filibusters against judges.
No such compromise is in the works this time, chiefly because a single senator can force the kind of filibuster votes Mr. Reid is seeking to scuttle.
Both men are now on the opposite sides of where they were in that judicial fight. Then, it was Mr. McConnell who said the rules could be changed by majority vote, and Mr. Reid who argued in favor of preserving minority rights.
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