Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s push to curtail use of the filibuster has picked up traction, even among many of the chamber’s senior Democrats who, while generally the most protective of Senate traditions, say Republicans have taken obstruction to unprecedented levels.
Mr. Reid's vow to change the rules at the beginning of the next Congress, using an opening-day procedure when the rules can be rewritten by a majority vote, has turned into a major fight in the Senate this week, with Republicans saying he is gutting time-tested rules of the chamber to achieve political gain.
It's not clear whether Mr. Reid, Nevada Democrat, has enough support from within his own caucus to make the change. "We’re working on it," chief vote-counter Sen. Richard J. Durbin told The Washington Times on Tuesday — but he has made substantial headway even with his party’s senior members.
"The Republicans have made the Senate dysfunctional, and I have asked my caucus to support simple changes," Mr. Reid said.
Senators have multiple chances to filibuster a bill — first before it comes to the floor and again before it passes the chamber. The burden is on the majority to muster 60 votes to end a filibuster.
Mr. Reid is proposing eliminating that first chance at a filibuster, which would mean just a simple majority would be required to bring legislation to the floor, and he is proposing that senators who want to block legislation should have to take to the floor and speak. That also could discourage some filibusters.
Democrats will hold a 55-45 majority next year, including a number of young lawmakers eager to change the filibuster rules. But even long-serving Democrats who have served in the minority, where the filibuster is the key tool, are warming to the idea of changing it.
Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat in his fourth term, said the changes would bring accountability to filibusters.
"The idea that you have to actually stand there and be personally accountable makes sense to me," he said.
Meanwhile Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who won her fifth term this month, said legislation that follows regular rules shouldn’t be filibustered before it even gets to the floor.
"I think if something comes out of committee and goes to the floor, it ought to have a chance to be discussed, not to have to go through cloture just to have a debate on the floor of the United States Senate," she said.
"We're here to debate, and we’re here to vote."
Sen. Jack Reed likewise seemed receptive to the idea of filibuster reform, but the third-term Rhode Island Democrat stopped short of endorsing Mr. Reid’s move.
"I think he's made a very serious proposal, and it has to be considered," Mr. Reed told The Times. "I am looking very carefully at it, because [it’s] one of these very serious issues that has to be considered."
Republicans object to Mr. Reid’s plan on two counts. They say he is curtailing minority rights and that in using the first-day rules-change procedure, he is breaking with tradition, in which most major rules changes take a two-thirds vote.
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who took to the Senate floor for a second day to debate Mr. Reid personally, later told reporters that Mr. Reid’s move was akin to throwing “a bomb into the Senate, have it blow up and have everybody mad as heck.” He said the problem isn’t the rules but rather Mr. Reid’s inability to control the chamber.
"What we need is a majority leader with a different view about the Senate, consistent with its norms and traditions," the Kentucky Republican said.
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 agrees 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, nicknamed the "nuclear option," 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.
Today, the roles are reversed.
"We ought to be negotiating. Rules changes ought to be proposed by the majority leader and the minority leader," Mr. McConnell said.
Mr. Reid said he is open to a counterproposal from Mr. McConnell if he has one.
"I'd be happy to talk to him about that," Mr. Reid said.
Other senators also are calling for compromise.
In an op-ed column this year in The Washington Post, Sens. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, and Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican, broached the idea of allowing a bill to come to the floor for consideration without a 60-vote majority in exchange for restricting amendments to those relevant to the bill.
In a September floor speech, Mr. Levin repeatedly called for “self-restraint” and said his support to limit filibusters on the motion to proceed with a bill would continue regardless of which party controlled the chamber after the election.
He also said, however, that using the majority-vote method would be a disastrous change for the Senate.
"My frustration with the recent abuses of the rules does not overwhelm my duty to defend the uniqueness and integrity of this great institution," he said.
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