Proponents of filibuster reform moved swiftly on Wednesday to stem speculation that their effort to revamp the rules of the Senate lacks the requisite number of Democratic votes for passage.
On Wednesday morning, the Hill reported that five Senate Democrats "have said they will not support a lowering of the 60-vote bar necessary to pass legislation" while another four said "they are wary about such a change." A reform of the filibuster would require 50 senators to pass (with Vice President Joseph Biden casting the deciding vote), meaning that the party can't stand to lose more than those nine votes.
The story sparked a bit of panic among reform advocates, one of whom couldn't help but mock the party's bargaining prowess: "Worst negotiators ever. If you don't cave before the fight even started you might be able to broker a deal of some sorts, or at least scare Republicans into action."
But within leadership circles and among the leading senators pushing filibuster reform, the Hill story was dismissed as premature vote-counting.
"This doesn't change the debate at all," said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate Majority Harry Reid (D-Nev.), a filibuster reform proponent himself. "Change sometimes comes slowly to the Senate. And I think people realize that we need to look into this as it becomes clearer that Republicans are unwilling to cooperate."
"While there may be disagreement about the path going forward, without question our current system is broken and needs to be fixed," said a statement provided by a spokesman from Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.). "The Senate cannot work if a majority cannot put forward an agenda, pass it and be accountable to the American people for the results. This isn't about giving one party or the other more power, it's about getting things done and honoring the will of the American people."
"There are a number of changes that have been proposed, dealing with the cloture rule, secret holds, the motion to proceed and other rules that have been abused," said Daniel Watson, a spokesman for Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) who has proposed legislation on filibuster reform. "There are also a range of opinions on these proposals and Sen. Udall's constitutional option provides the best way to find common ground. Senator Udall's proposal doesn't advocate for a specific change to the rules, instead for the Senate to take responsibility on the first day of Congress and adopt or re-examine them by a simple majority, as provided in the Constitution."
Taken alone, the above statements seem like customary pushback to a politically uncomfortable story. But there was important context to Wednesday's debate over filibuster reform. Shortly after the Hill piece went online, the Senate Rules Committee held its fourth hearing into reforming the rules of the Senate. Later in the day, Reid's office added a bill to the Senate calendar that would eliminate the practice of secret holds on nominees -- a smaller bite at the institutional reform apple but still a major cause for reformers.
One top Democratic aide speaking on the condition of anonymity predicted that the party would ultimately pursue more incremental gains in reforming Senate practices as opposed to fully changing the 60-vote threshold for cloture votes on legislation. But lowering the threshold, the aide cautioned, is "not impossible."
"We have come to this breaking point and it is not only the freshmen and sophomores who think we need change," the aide said. "There are institutionalists as well. When you have the majority leader making comments like that, that creates a type of pressure."
As for the calendar, leadership aides say that serious consideration of filibuster reform will likely come after the November elections as the agenda is fairly stacked beforehand with other legislative priorities.
UPDATE: An earlier version of this piece said this was the second Rules Committee hearing on filibuster reform. It is the fourth hearing.