With the "fiscal cliff" averted for now, and the Senate on recess the next two weeks, the chamber's leaders have some breathing room to negotiate a possible compromise on another toxic topic — filibuster reform.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, is keen on curbing the Republicans' use of the filibuster to block or delay legislation and White House nominees. He and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, are expected to hold talks on the matter before the Senate returns to work after the presidential inauguration.
Last week, Mr. Reid used a parliamentary tactic that allows him to hold off making rule changes indefinitely while also easing the requirement for doing so. Under that procedure, each new day is still being considered as the "first day" of the new Congress. And on that "first day," parliamentary procedures let the Senate change its rules by a simple majority.
The filibuster — which has a long history in the Senate, but doesn't exist in the House — is a procedural move that requires at least 60 votes to overcome in the 100-seat chamber — a near-impossible scenario with the Democratic caucus' slim majority since 2011.
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.
A group of Democratic senators has pressed Mr. Reid for hold out for significant filibuster reforms. Among those is Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, who says he is confident the majority leader has the 51 votes needed to overhaul filibuster rules.
"We'll have good momentum when we return" later this month, Mr. Udall told a gathering of reporters at the Capitol last week.
Mr. Udall, along with Democratic Sens. Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Tom Harkin of Iowa, 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. That was the historic norm, and the grist for many movies about politics. In recent years, though, the practice evolved into the current "gentleman's agreement" that senators only have to say they are filibustering, without actually having to hold the floor and talk endlessly.
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.
From 1917 — when the Senate first adopted cloture rules for ending debate — until 1969, there were fewer than 50 motions to end filibusters, or an average of less than one filibuster a year. By contrast, since 2007, the majority party has filed almost 400 motions to end filibusters, Mr. Harkin's office said.
"The abuse of the filibuster in recent years has fundamentally changed the character of the Senate and our entire system of government," said Mr. Harkin, who also has sponsored his own filibuster-reform bill. "At issue is a fundamental principle of our democracy — majority rule in a legislative body."
But Republicans say Mr. Reid's attempts to overhaul filibuster rules unfairly curtails time-honored minority rights. They add that in using the first-day rules-change procedure, the majority leader is breaking with tradition, in which most major rules changes take a two-thirds vote.
Conservative groups also have attacked Mr. Reid over the matter.
Steven J. Duffield, vice president for policy at Crossroads GPS, argued in an opinion article published last week in The Washington Examiner that the "Reid Plan" would undermine Senate conservatives' ability to influence legislation. He added the proposed rule changes would have its most significant impact on presidential nominations, especially for the Supreme Court, which could have up to three vacancies in the next four years.
"The Senate will be transformed into President Obama's rubber stamp" if Mr. Reid's proposed filibuster reforms go through, Mr. Duffield said.
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