Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says he's determined to move forward this week with proposed filibuster reforms — with or without the help of Republicans.
The Nevada Democrat, who has accused Republicans of excessively and unfairly using the filibuster to block legislation and presidential nominees, has been trying to broker a compromise in recent weeks with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.
Mr. Reid told reporters Tuesday afternoon he has had some "positive meetings" with Mr. McConnell regarding filibuster reforms and hoped to reach a deal within the "next 24 to 36 hours." But the majority leader added that, "if not, we're going to move forward on what I think needs to be done."
Rule changes typically require a two-thirds majority, or 67 votes, in the 100-member Senate, except on the first day of a new Congress, when changes can be done with a simple majority. But Mr. Reid has used a parliamentary tactic that allows him to officially extend the first day of Congress indefinitely — thus preserving the so-called "nuclear" or "constitutional" option to change Senate rules with only 51 votes.
Mr. Reid said he prefers a negotiated deal. But when asked directly if he would try to force filibuster reforms with only a simple majority if talks with Mr. McConnell broke down, the Democrat flatly said, "Yes."
Mr. Reid added his caucus supports him on the matter.
McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said Tuesday evening the talks were continuing.
The filibuster, which has a long history in the Senate but which doesn't exist in the House, is a procedural move used to stall or block bills or nominees and requires at least 60 votes to overcome — a near-impossible scenario with the Democratic caucus' slim majority since 2009.
The Constitution says nothing about the filibuster, which came into use as a way to ensure the minority party had time to weigh in on important legislation. In the past century, cloture rules to limit debate began being introduced.
Democrats have accused Mr. McConnell of abusing the rule, saying he has used it so excessively it has mired the chamber in historic gridlock. The Kentucky Republican has countered he is left with no choice because Mr. Reid often refuses to allow many — or any — Republican amendments to legislation.
Some Democrats have pushed a proposal that would require the minority party to get 41 votes to stall a bill or nominee. Currently, the majority must secure 60 votes to end a filibuster.
"The abuse of the filibuster and other procedural rules has prevented the U.S. Senate from doing its job," said Sen. Tom Udall, New Mexico Democrat. "We are no longer 'the world's greatest deliberative body.' In fact, we barely deliberate at all."
Mr. Udall, along with Democratic Sens. Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Tom Harkin of Iowa, and Sen. Angus S. King Jr., Maine independent, have sponsored a bill that would severely restrict the ability to filibuster bringing a bill to the floor — though it would still allow for a filibuster to prevent the bill from passing.
The bill also seeks to force senators who want to block legislation to hold the floor and talk. Such a move, known as a "talking filibuster," was the historic norm and the grist for movies about politics. In recent years, though, the practice evolved so that senators only have to say they are filibustering without actually having to hold the floor and talk endlessly.
"Under the abuse of the current rules, all it takes to filibuster is one senator picking up the phone. Period," Mr. Udall said.
Mr. Merkley said the talking filibuster is more transparent because it forces a senator who attempts a filibuster to verbally defend his or her position on the Senate floor.
"You can still filibuster a bill (with his proposal), but if you choose to vote for additional debate, then as an individual you're committing yourself to say there's more to say," Mr. Merkley said. "There should be dialogue before the American people."
Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, who has proposed filibuster-reform legislation of his own, says he has "problems" with ramming though rule changes using the nuclear option, saying he prefers a negotiated compromise between party leaders.
"Something along those lines, if it can be worked out with the two leaders, I think gets us to where we want to go, which is ending that gridlock [and] does it in a way which does not go around the rules," Mr. Levin said.
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