WASHINGTON — Hopes dimmed Thursday for vast rules changes in the Senate to limit the filibuster as a weapon in the partisan obstruction that has ground action in the chamber to a near standstill.
Senators, mostly liberal Democrats, had sought to bring reforms at the start of the new Congress, and a key component was the requirement that any senator wishing to conduct a filibuster must remain talking on the Senate floor in the style actor James Stewart made famous in the film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
Instead, top Senate leaders were heading toward a more modest agreement, aides said.
The changes are critical to make at the beginning of the new congressional session, when Senate rules can be altered with a simple majority, rather than the typical 60-vote threshold that has become the new norm for conducting business. That high bar is difficult to reach in a narrowly divided Senate.
Democrats, who have a 55-45 majority in the chamber, were holding a private lunch Thursday to debate the final product. Republicans were expected to follow.
“The incremental ‘reforms’ in the agreement do not go nearly far enough to deliver meaningful change,” said a statement from Fix the Senate Now, a coalition of legal scholars and liberal activists that has pushed the issue. The group saidthat if Senate agrees to the deal as being discussed it will have “missed an opportunity to restore accountability and deliberation to the Senate, while not raising the costs of obstruction.”
To be sure, the agreement being forged between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would help usher legislation along more swiftly in the slow-moving chamber.
Under the deal, senators would give up their ability to filibuster — or hold endless debate — on the procedural step that is required to advance a piece of legislation, called the motion to proceed.
In exchange for giving up the right to filibuster on the motion to proceed, both sides would be guaranteed the opportunity to offer two amendments to the bill — a particularly important provision for the minority Republicans, who have long complained that they are forced to filibuster because Reid blocks them from trying to amend bills with votes on provisions Democrats dislike.
Even though senators could still filibuster the actual bill, eliminating the filibuster on the procedural step would cut days off the typical debate time.
The agreement also would limit the ability of senators to filibuster certain nominations from the White House, including those for judgeships on the circuit courts and for sub-Cabinet members.
Senators, particularly Republicans, routinely hold up presidential nominees as leverage to extract other concessions from the White House.
The last few years have seen record numbers of filibusters, largely led by Republicans seeking to block President Obama’s agenda in the Senate in what has become an escalating procedural arms race. Democrats also sought to obstruct then-President George W. Bush with the filibuster.
The ability to filibuster has long been part of Senate history, and the ability to cut off debate with a supermajority was only allowed after a rule change in 1917, when President Woodrow Wilson sought to overcome Senate reservations about entering the post-World War I Treaty of Versailles. Decades later, Sen. Strom Thurmond’s record 24-hour filibuster stalled Civil Rights legislation.
Traditionally, a filibuster can only come to an end with a 60-vote supermajority, which has proven difficult in this partisan era. Even if the supermajority is reached, procedures still require at least three days for a filibuster to be overcome.
The result has gummed up the Senate, a chamber the forefathers designed to move more slowly than the fiery House — but perhaps not as slow as this.
Apparently gone from Thursday’s agreement would be the crown jewel of reform efforts: the requirement that senators, many of whom are senior citizens, remain on the Senate floor continuously if they intend to block legislation with a filibuster, as Thurmond did.
Over the years, senators have reached a gentlemen’s agreement not to press such requirements, and that appeared to be holding on Thursday.
Veteran senators have been hesitant to change the rules of the Senate, often considered the more institutional of the two chambers.
As senators considered their options, Reid has preserved the ability to force a rules change without agreement from McConnell by using the so-called nuclear option of just 51 votes.
To that end, Reid has kept the Senate operating the last few weeks as though it was still Jan. 3, the first day of the new Congress when rules can be changed.