The Senate Weighs Rules Reform

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On Jan. 5, the day Nancy Pelosi passed the House speaker’s gavel to John Boehner, Democratic Senators Tom Udall, Tom Harkin and Jeff Merkley introduced a package of rules changes geared toward increasing transparency and accelerating the pace of an institution whose innate incrementalism has veered into “obstruction and dysfunction.” Noting that use of the filibuster has expanded exponentially in recent years, they proposed reforming the filibuster process, including lowering the number of members required to break one or forcing a bloc of 40 to actually carry it through; ending secret holds; and changing the rules for post-cloture debate to allow for amendments from both sides. Every Democratic Senator supported some level of reform.

So what happened? Senate leaders stalled the chamber’s business, plunging it into a long stretch of parliamentary limbo. They’re finally back tomorrow, and the task of hammering out a deal on these issues has fallen to Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York. What has emerged from their haggling, according to reports, are a set of modest compromises aimed at garnering the 67 votes needed to make the change. Among them: a measure to reduce the number of presidential appointees that require confirmation by the Senate (currently about 1,400), ostensibly to clear the legislative calendar a bit; another to make public the names of lawmakers who hold up nominees; and eliminating members’ right to stall legislation by reading it aloud on the floor, provided it’s been posted online for a set amount of time. Not exactly scraps, but hardly the sweeping changes they wanted.

Earlier this month, Merkley told Mother Jones that “the key to us succeeding in this is going to be a point when our leadership says they’re on board and they’re ready to take us into battle.” They weren’t. It’s not surprising that lawmakers steeped in the chamber’s procedural arcana would be reticent to relinquish some of their moves. The minority wants to remain relevant. The majority knows they could be in the minority in two short years, and they needed more bipartisan buy-in than usual. Schumer and Alexander are expected to present proposals at tomorrow’s caucus lunches. Democrats who pushed for larger reforms may have trouble swallowing the pact presented to them.

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