Posted on January 4, 2011
WASHINGTON — A band of Senate Democrats signaled on Monday that it would press forward when Congress convenes this week with a proposal to curtail filibusters and other methods of slowing the chamber’s work, but a bit of procedural sleight-of-hand could delay any floor fight over the contentious rules changes until later in January.
Senator Tom Udall, Democrat of New Mexico, said that he intended to call for new limits on filibusters that would require senators to be on the floor if they seek to derail legislation. He and other Democrats, frustrated at Republicans’ ability to tie up the Senate, want to make it harder to erect other procedural obstacles as well.
Citing the Constitution and prior Senate rulings, Mr. Udall has argued that senators have the ability to change the chamber’s rules by a majority vote on the first day of the new Congress, which for the 112th Congress begins at noon Wednesday.
“I am intending on offering my constitutional option on the first day,” Mr. Udall said in a telephone interview as he prepared to return to Capitol Hill.
Senate leaders, seeking more time for bipartisan talks aimed at avoiding a potentially disruptive showdown on the Senate floor, are preparing a tactic that would let negotiations continue while maintaining the ability of Democrats to press ahead with their changes if talks prove fruitless.
In essence, Democrats could put the Senate in recess at the conclusion of Wednesday’s mainly ceremonial proceedings to be highlighted by the swearing in of 13 new senators.
As a result, the Senate would technically still be in the same legislative day when lawmakers returned on Jan. 24, and the backers of the rules changes could proceed at that point if they were not satisfied. Mr. Udall could also seek other guarantees that his right to challenge the rules was not harmed by the delay, which he said could give him more time to build support for his plan.
In the interim, Congressional officials said, talks over a rules compromise could continue between Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, and Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader. Senator Charles E. Schumer, the New York Democrat and chairman of the Rules Committee, would continue parallel talks with Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who is in line to be the top Republican on that panel.
Past rules disputes have usually been averted through such negotiations. But if no agreement is reached, lawmakers say they will force a debate, which Republicans and some Democrats have warned could rupture relations in the Senate, tie up President Obama’s agenda and lead Democrats to regret the decision if they return to the minority.
“One of our main focuses is making people stand up and explain to the American people why they are filibustering,” said Senator Amy Klobuchar, the Minnesota Democrat who has been working with Mr. Udall to develop changes in the way the Senate operates.
She said she and others would prefer to work with Republicans to see if they can reach a bipartisan agreement but would not shy away from a floor fight.
Republicans, who forced more than 90 votes to cut off filibusters in the last two years, said they had little choice since Democrats on many occasions refused them any opportunity to propose changes to legislation. Mr. Alexander and others have warned Democrats to brace for a backlash should they act unilaterally.
In a speech prepared for a Tuesday appearance at the Heritage Foundation, Mr. Alexander reiterated his position that Democrats would be making a mistake. “Voters who turned out in November are going to be pretty disappointed when they learn the first thing Democrats want to do is cut off the right of the people they elected to make their voices heard on the floor of the U.S. Senate,” he said in his planned remarks.
The effort to rein in filibusters has attracted considerable support from Democratic activists who believe that Republicans have abused the rules to thwart the agenda of Mr. Obama and Congressional Democrats. Before adjourning in December, all Democratic senators who are returning for the 112th Congress signed a letter to Mr. Reid urging him “to take steps to bring these abuses of our rules to an end.”
Besides forcing senators to take the floor to defend their filibusters, Democrats also want to make it harder to stonewall the initial effort to bring a measure to the floor, a step known as the “motion to proceed.” They also want to ban the ability of senators to place an anonymous “hold” on a bill or nomination.
The tactic of defying the calendar and keeping the Senate in the same legislative day is not a new one. According to the Senate Historical Office, Senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, then the majority leader, set the record of 162 days in 1980 when he kept the Senate in the same legislative day from Jan. 3 to June 12 over filibuster changes.