- Associated Press - Thursday, January 27, 2011

WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate leaders said Thursday they have agreed that minority Republicans would filibuster fewer bills and nominations in exchange for a promise by the Democratic majority to give them more chances to offer amendments.

The gentleman’s agreement announced by Majority Leader Harry Reid and Republican leader Mitch McConnell was part of a package of measures to make the Senate a more workable and less contentious place. It also included support of a resolution, to be voted on later in the day, to end the practice of one senator being able to secretly block votes and a rules change that would slash by a third the number of presidential appointments that need Senate approval.

The agreement came as the Senate prepared to vote against proposals by several Democrats that would put more formal restrictions on the right of the minority to hold up or block bills and nominations through filibusters.

The institution has been plagued in recent years by procedural delays, often the result of partisan differences, and public displeasure with Congress was a key factor in the fall midterm elections that saw Republicans recapture the House and increase their strength in the Senate. A recent Associated Press-GfK poll showed that 69 percent of the people disapprove of Congress and only 26 percent view it favorably.

Mr. Reid, Nevada Democrat, defended the central premise of the filibuster, saying debate without time limits was “in our DNA” in the Senate. But he said that “we have to act because when abuses keep us from doing our work, they deter us from working together and they stop us from working for the American people.”

Mr. McConnell said he was optimistic that he and Mr. Reid could “convince our colleagues that we ought to get back to operating the Senate the way we did as recently as three or four years ago, when bills came up and they were open for amendment, and we voted on amendments, and at some point the bill would be completed.”

Republicans have defended their use of the filibuster — which requires a supermajority of 60 votes to overcome and can effectively kill many bills — saying it was in response to Democrats limiting the number of amendments they can offer to bills.

The deal focuses only on filibusters pertaining to “motions to proceed,” or attempts to bring a bill or a nomination to the Senate floor. The compromise did not extend to filibusters that block efforts to cut off debate and bring a bill to a final vote.

Mr. Reid said that last year Republicans forced 26 votes just to get bills to the floor, often with the primary goal, he said, of stalling Senate activities. Some, he said, were on non-controversial bills such as a travel promotion bill that eventually passed by overwhelming majorities. It can take weeks to get a bill to a final vote if the minority uses all its filibuster authority.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, Oregon Democrat, who has led an anti-filibuster campaign with Sens. Tom Udall, New Mexico Democrat, and Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, applauded the “modest” steps taken by the two leaders. But he said it removed only one of three 60-foot walls that now stand in the way of getting legislation through the Senate. In addition to the 60 votes needed to overcome filibusters on motions to proceed, there can also be filibusters on amendments and on ending debate.

“How much will it really change for this Senate?” he asked.

Mr. Reid and Mr. McConnell said the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee would be asked to put together legislation on reducing appointments subject to Senate confirmation, now about 1,400, by about one-third. The confirmation process can take months, subjects nominees to exhausting investigations, eats up Senate time and has been used by senators as leverage to advance their own causes.

They also agreed that the practice of disgruntled senators of forcing the reading clerk to read out amendments in their entirety, a delaying tactic that can take hours, will be done away with.

The announcement preceded five votes on procedural changes. Most likely to succeed was a resolution that would effectively end the practice of secret “holds,” where a single senator, without revealing his or her name or motive, can block votes on legislation or nominations.

Under the proposal long pushed by Sens. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, and Charles Grassley, Iowa Republican, and also sponsored by Sen. Claire McCaskill, Missouri Democrat, senators would have to make public their objections within 48 hours of placing them and could no longer baton-pass their holds to other senators to avoid having to reveal themselves.

Holds, which require 60 votes to overcome, have become a common practice of senators trying either to block nominations or push some political point such as opposition to unrelated policies.

Headed for likely defeat are resolutions by Mr. Udall, Mr. Merkley and Mr. Harkin to end filibusters on motions to bring a bill to the Senate floor, gradually decrease the votes needed to overcome a filibuster as debate progresses and require those conducting filibusters to remain on the Senate floor and continue talking.

Mr. Merkley noted that when the Senate acted in 1975 to restrict delaying tactics, it followed two years in which there were 44 filibusters. This year, he said, follows a two-year session in which there were 135. He acknowledged they lacked even a simple majority in their attempt to make the Senate a more efficient and less filibuster-driven place. “Reform is not for the short-winded, ” Mr. Udall said, adding that “I’m committed to making sure the Senate is more than just a graveyard for good ideas.”

Republicans were united in opposing formal limits to filibusters, and Democrats, foreseeing the possibility that they could be in the minority after the 2012 election, were also not enthusiastic.

Another resolution, by Sen. Mark Udall, Colorado Democrat, would end the stalling tactic of requiring the reading clerk to recite proposed amendments in their entirety.

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