WASHINGTON -- Some Senate Democrats leading the push for filibuster reform say they plan to discuss possible rule changes during a full caucus meeting, likely to be held on Friday, and will seek a final package for the chamber to consider early next year.
In a conference call with reporters on Thursday, two of the Senate's loudest pro-reform voices offered fresh details on the still-delicate strategy they said they hope to pursue in the weeks ahead. According to Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.), the caucus will begin discussion of specific proposals supported or proposed by Senate Democrats in the past.
Whether a final consensus can be reached, even among Democrats, remains to be seen. But the pro-reform faction's best -- perhaps only -- shot at passage is to have one package with multiple elements brought to the floor on Jan. 5. They plan to submit a public proposal to Vice President Joseph Biden sometime before then, Merkley said.
"What I think you will hear us both talking about is, there are various proposals that are popular," said Udall. There are, he added, "close to 70 signatures on a letter in concept, saying, 'Let's make these secret holds transparent, so people have to own up to them.' The continuous-debate concept that Senator Merkley mentioned at the beginning, that I think has a good level of support, [is] the idea [championed by] Senator [Dan] Coats, the new Republican senator from Indiana, saying that there shouldn't be a 60-vote operation as far as the motion to proceed, that [it] should be limited. Those are ones that have support, but there is no actual package yet. That's what we're trying to formulate in this caucus we're having today, and we'll be -- I think this'll be a work in progress all the way 'til we get up to January the fifth."
That date is shaping up to be one of the most critical days of the next Congress, with filibuster-reform advocates hoping to set new rules for the chamber by a simple up-or-down vote. Whether the so-called "constitutional option" can work is a parliamentarian's debate. But as Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), another reform proponent, noted on Wednesday: "[Former Sen.] Robert Byrd in 1975 ... changed the rules and [brought the filibuster threshold] from 67 [votes] down to 60, [and] actually stated on the floor that a majority, 51 senators, could change the rules."
The key question may be whether or not there are 51 senators to back a rule change package or measure. Udall stressed on Thursday that Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) had been "supportive of the idea." But both he and Merkley seemed to acknowledge that getting the "old bulls" of the chamber in line might be prove difficult. At the same time, it is evident that senators who want systematic change won't settle for anything piecemeal.
"There needs to be an ability to prevent the sort of tactics that have been utilized often, not necessarily by a whole group, but by a single senator," said Merkley.
"What I'm fearful of is that, knowing how this place works, that we might come down to some minor little fixes that still will not prevent the minority from stopping everything," Harkin said Wednesday. "The minority can still stop it, but we'll make it a little bit more efficient, maybe, but the minority -- to me, that's the essential question. Are you still going to give the minority the power to absolutely block and stop everything? It's a fundamental question."
Regardless of the size and scope of the reform effort -- or even, perhaps, its chances of success -- there are certain to be howls of protest from the Republican side of the aisle. At this juncture it's not entirely clear whether the GOP has the procedural capacity to stop a rules change from coming to an up-or-down vote. But in an email to The Huffington Post, a Republican leadership aide previewed the GOP's likely counterattack to the growing talk of filibuster reform.
After the 94 elections, when Republicans took the majority, there was an effort to change the cloture rules and make it easier for the majority to ram things through unabated. Every Republican opposed it -- even though it was in our interest. Here's some questions I'd love to see Dems answer:
- If you end the cloture rules, are you going to be okay with health care repealed in the next Republican majority without any chance to stop it?
- Are you okay with permanent tax relief for all rates, with no possibility of stopping it?
Finally, think of all the judges they blocked during the Bush years that would now be on the bench for life if the anti-cloture crowd had its way.