The Longest Day

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Those waiting for a change in the Senate filibuster rules may be waiting a while. Senate Democrats have been toying with the idea of softening the rules to ease the logjam in the Upper Chamber for years. The dawn of the 112th seemed like an ideal time to make the change, especially in the face of lots of potential objections from the body’s newest Tea Party set. Alas, those pushing for change – mostly newer Democratic members like Missouri’s Claire McCaskill and New Mexico’s Tom Udall – have yet to agree on what, exactly, they want to modify. A rules change only takes 51 votes, but it’s not clear that the reformers have even a simple majority at this point even though Democrats control 53 seats.

Democrats and the two Independents that caucus with them have 23 seats up in the next election to the Republicans’ 10 seats. Many of those Democratic seats are in tough states like Montana, Nebraska and West Virginia. Some Dems worry that they could be weakening the rights of the minority right before they enter it.

At the same time, there is bipartisan support for changing some aspects of the rules – such as doing away with the secret hold. Republicans, though, are more resistant to any changes to the filibuster. So, a middle ground must be found and negotiators are still trying to work out what, if anything, could garner enough support to pass then Senate. They will likely need the next two weeks – the Senate breaks tomorrow and isn’t scheduled to reconvene until January 24 – to reach a consensus.

Proponents of filibuster reform in the Senate – at least those sitting in the Senate – don’t want to fully do away with the filibuster but rather reduce the amount of times it can be invoked. One proposal is to limit motions for cloture – which limits debate time to 30 hours thus avoiding a filibuster — from three times per bill, for a maximum of 90 hours, to two times per bills, or 60 hours of debate. It would still take 60 votes to achieve cloture, though other proposals have suggested lowering the threshold to 55 votes – those proposals have gained less traction. Udall’s plan would also require a Senator to personally object on the floor of the Senate and remain there until the objection is resolved. “I’m not in favor of reducing the vote from 60,” says Senator Ben Nelson, a Nebraska Democrat. “But I do favor requiring the caucus favoring the filibuster to have members on the floor while filibustering — maybe four or five Senators. Should they leave the filibuster ends. Right out of the movie Mr. Smith goes to Washington.”

Traditionally, rules changes are done on the first day of the session. In order to give negotiators more time, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is going to have to recess – but not adjourn – at the end of the day on Wednesday. By recessing, it technically remains the same business day until Reid adjourns the Senate – likely when they come back on January 24 after the vote on the rules changes.