CQ: Tempered Rules Battle Awaits Next Senate

Posted on December 10, 2010

The Senate appears unlikely to make drastic changes in its rules next month, despite earlier Democratic calls to rein in the power of the minority to derail or delay action.

But with controversial proposals still under discussion — including elimination of the opportunity to filibuster a motion to take up a matter — there is still likely to be a floor fight in January over procedural issues.

“Some rules should be changed — with great caution, with great respect for the minority, not as a way of taking away rights but as a way of streamlining and facilitating doing the business of the Senate,” said John Kerry, D-Mass., a five-term senator.

The most explosive rule change Democrats are considering would allow the Senate to begin consideration of a bill without mustering 60 votes to cut off debate on a motion to proceed. Sixty votes would still be needed to limit debate on other matters.

Democratic proponents say preventing filibusters of motions to proceed would speed the Senate’s work without removing the minority’s ability to block legislation. Republican opponents say the idea is an attempt to unnecessarily reduce the minority’s clout.

“The rules don’t need to be changed,” said Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, chairman of the Senate Republican Conference. “We need to change our way of doing business here so when the majority leader brings up a bill, we have full amendment and full debate before we vote on it.”

The idea of ending filibusters on motions to proceed has the public support of at least one Republican: Sen.-elect Dan Coats of Indiana, who previously spent 10 years in the Senate.

But rule changes generally require a two-thirds vote for approval, a threshold that would be hard to reach anytime — and particularly next year when the Democratic Caucus will include 53 senators and the Republican Conference, 47.

Democrats have discussed trying to push through rules changes by a simple majority vote at the start of the new Congress — a move that would surely create a partisan firestorm at a time when members of both parties have called for more bipartisan comity on major issues. More likely, the Democratic majority will move cautiously on such matters, especially given the need for more Republican cooperation on legislation when Democratic numbers are diminished come Jan. 5.

Voices of Caution

Some senior Democrats have tried to curb the zeal for far-reaching changes, appealing to longstanding Senate traditions.

Retiring Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, a 30-year veteran of the chamber, devoted a portion of his Nov. 30 farewell speech to discouraging rules changes.

“The Senate was designed to be different, not simply for the sake of variety, but because the framers believed the Senate could and should be the venue in which statesmen would lift America up to meet its unique challenges,” the Connecticut Democrat said.

Some junior senators echo those sentiments.

Benjamin L. Cardin, a first-term Democrat from Maryland, said he favors more transparency to hold senators accountable for their actions, but he also expressed caution. “I understand the rights of the minority, and I think the rights of the minority ought to be protected,” he said.

After closed-door meetings nearly every day of the lame-duck session that have included discussion of Senate rules changes, Democrats appear unlikely to try to cut the number of votes necessary to end filibusters below the current threshold of 60. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and others have proposed dropping that threshold to as little as a simple majority.

“I’m not certain there’s consensus on changing the numbers for filibusters, but there are other things that we can do with making the process more efficient,” said Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.

Klobuchar and other first-term Democratic senators — those first elected in 2006 and 2008 — have been leading the charge for ways to expedite Senate action on legislation and nominations, arguing that Republicans have abused the rules to slow down or block the chamber’s work.

Holds Targeted

The proposed change with the strongest support is restricting secret holds that senators use to block floor action on bills and nominations. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, have proposed a requirement that senators publicly announce their holds within one day. The requirement would come in the form of a new “standing order,” not a change in Senate rules, so it could be made with a simple majority vote.

“They’re either going to get on the agenda in January or the top of my head’s going to pop off,” McCaskill, who has been pressing for the change all year, said of secret holds.

Despite the lengthy talks over the past several weeks, Democrats have not decided which procedural changes they will press in January, although some action seems assured, given the frustrations of rank-and-file senators over the slow pace of Senate action.

“All of us are frustrated with the waste of time involved and looking at ways that we can really be responsible to this country at a time when we’re struggling with jobs and the economy to get an agenda done,” said Patty Murray of Washington, the Democratic Conference secretary.

But Alexander said the realization that Democrats could find themselves in the minority if they lose four more seats in the 2012 elections could further tamp down their appetite for rules changes.

“Some of the newer Democrats are wanting to turn the Senate into the House, where the majority can run a freight train through it,” he said. “They’re going to be a lot less eager to do that if they’ll think two years ahead, when the freight train might be the Tea Party Express.”