The McConnell-Reid Filibuster Compromise

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have reached a compromise on filibuster reform, an issue Bill tackled on last weekend’s episode of Moyers & Company. The deal is reflective of a December proposal by Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Carl Levin (D-MI), not the tougher reform called for by Senators Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Tom Udall (D-NM).

Talking Points Memo reports:

After a caucus meeting, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) told reporters that there’s overwhelming support for the agreement among Democrats, despite the protestations of those who wanted more sweeping reforms.

“That’s how this world works. People start aspiring at very high levels, then you get a negotiation, then you reach something called compromise,” he said. “There’s a very positive feeling among the people in our caucus. But the fact that the two leaders have been able to work it out together is great for the Senate.”

Mitch McConnell

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Jan. 22, 2013. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

During the 112th Congress, the Senate was historically ineffective to the point of inertia, passing only 2.8 percent of bills introduced. This was in part due to the Senate’s current filibuster rules, which allow senators to anonymously hold up legislation they oppose. To overcome a filibuster, proponents of any legislation need to gather a 60-vote supermajority for a cloture vote — a task that has proved very difficult for the Democratic majority (53-47).

Far-right Republicans have used the complicated filibuster procedural rules to great effect. Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), for example, has blocked or delayed hundreds of popular bills because, in his opinion, they called for wasteful spending.

With Senate Democrats leading the charge, the November election and the start of the 113th Congress presented an opportunity to reform filibuster rules. The compromise rising from that effort removes the need for a 60-vote supermajority to proceed to debate on a bill — if the majority party offers the minority party two amendments. According to The New Republic, the procedural change is a “political win for the Republicans, who hope to force vulnerable incumbent Democrats who are up for reelection in 2014 into taking tough stances on controversial issues.” Another change limits debate time for minor presidential appointees and district court nominations, two steps that might fix a nomination system that in recent years has fallen apart. Nominees to the Supreme Court, Circuit Court and cabinet-level positions were not included in the rule change.

But senators will still be able to filibuster a bill without being present on the Senate floor — the infamous “silent” filibuster — a practice many reformers hoped to abolish. Nor does the compromise include a Merkley-Udall proposal to “shift the burden” to the minority party, requiring 41 votes to keep a filibuster going rather than the current 60 votes to end one. What’s more, many of the new rules will expire in two years.

Larry Cohen, president of the Communications Workers of America — and one of Bill’s guests last weekend on Moyers & Company — helped lead the push for reform. In a statement yesterday, he said the compromise did not bode well for the new Senate.

For members of our union, and progressives throughout the nation, the failure to enact substantial reform of the Senate rules almost guarantees that for two more years, there will not be effective debate, discussion or voting on even the critical issues that the Obama Administration has outlined.

For years, the filibuster has been an important part of Senate procedure, but senators with a minority opinion have not had to speak for hours to defend their position, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington-style, since 1975, when the number of votes needed to overcome a filibuster through cloture was lowered from 67 to 60. In return, the minority party was allowed to filibuster without saying a word.

The timidity of yesterday’s reforms reflects a fear among many Democrats that, should Republicans regain the Senate majority they lost in 2007, Democrats will need the filibuster to block their opponents’ agenda. With the limited reforms of the McConnell-Reid compromise, future minorities will still be able to use the same gridlock-inducing measures that Republicans have for the last four years.

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