Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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January 5, 2011

FILIBUSTER REFORM PACKAGE UNVEILED IN THE SENATE.... With the new Senate officially being sworn in this afternoon, reform-minded members were finally able to present their proposed changes to how the chamber would operate.

The package of changes was unveiled today by Sens. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), and while most of the proposals were well known, these final details matter, and will serve as the starting point for institutional talks over the next couple of weeks.

As promised, Udall proposes ending secret holds and the right of the minority to filibuster the start of debate, and demanding the "talking" filibuster.

But, according to documents provided by Udall's office in advance of his floor speech, it also includes a proposal that guarantees both parties the right to amend legislation -- limiting the majority leader's power to "fill the amendment tree" and block extended debate.

"This provision addresses comments of Republicans at last year's Rules Committee hearings," the summary reads. "Each time Democrats raised concerns about filibusters on motions to proceed, Republicans responded that it was their only recourse because the Majority Leader fills the amendment tree and prevents them from offering amendments. Our resolution provides a simple solution -- it guarantees the minority the right to offer germane amendments."

The unexpected provision also seems like a reasonable idea -- if adopted, by the majority leader and the minority leader would be able to present three germane amendments to bills, curtailing the "filling the tree" approach that limits the minority's ability to alter legislation.

Also of note, under the status quo, after a filibuster is defeated, the Senate has to wait 30 hours before it can do anything else. Under the Udall/Harkin/Merkley plan, the chamber would have two hours of debate after cloture is complete.

Greg Sargent posted the complete text of the five-point reform plan.

Keep in mind, those looking forward to big decisions on this today will be disappointed. The reform plan was introduced today, but members will now continue to debate how to proceed. Because rules have to be agreed upon at the start of the session, the Senate will recess today and return on Jan. 24 -- and it will technically still be the first legislative day.

This gives senators quite a bit of time to try to rally support (or opposition) to institutional reforms. As for what kind of changes, if any, are likely, the Republican leadership's hostility to changes appears to be hardening, but we'll know more soon enough.

Steve Benen 1:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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"...the Senate will recess today and return on Jan. 24 -- and it will technically still be the first legislative day."

So, will the President be able to make recess appointments Jan. 6 - 23?

Posted by: delNorte on January 5, 2011 at 1:16 PM | PERMALINK

Given Republican actions in the House it is imperative that Reid and Senate Democrats get some level of sanity back into the Senate. If they fail to adopt a set of rules that allows the Senate to function than Senate Republicans will just have that much more incentive to keep gumming up the works.

Posted by: thorin-1 on January 5, 2011 at 1:19 PM | PERMALINK

Our republican response to this is consistent with our beliefs:

When Obama and democrats propose, then we must oppose!

To paraphrase one of our intellectual leaders, Grover Norquist, the only good government is one that we have drowned! Now, about that black president...

Posted by: RepublicanPointOfView on January 5, 2011 at 1:28 PM | PERMALINK

Sounds like a very good plan. I don't see why the Democrats don't just adopt it whole cloth? Why wait? Or maybe it is to give Obama 'recess' appointments?

I think Obama should consider adding justices to the Supreme Court. Nine is too small for the challenges we face, and there is no constitutional rule on numbers.

It would be important to have more representation rather than less on the Court, especially since some like Scalia , are committed to doing virtually nothing, while Alito and Thomas seem quite compromised with their conservative fund raising and cheerleading.

Posted by: jjm on January 5, 2011 at 1:29 PM | PERMALINK

re post-cloture: It looks to me like the 30 hours persists for bills but is cut to 2 hours for nominations only.

Posted by: Clem Yeobright on January 5, 2011 at 1:29 PM | PERMALINK

Who will enforce how a "germane amendment" is interpreted?

Posted by: Vandal on January 5, 2011 at 1:39 PM | PERMALINK

Democrats are stupid, changing the filibuster rules is an obvious trap.

Now that the Republicans control the House, in order to get their legislation passed the Senate, they need to peel off a couple conservative Democratic senators. Changing the filibuster rules only makes this easier, since they only need to convince 3 fence sitters as opposed to 13.

Posted by: lost on January 5, 2011 at 1:49 PM | PERMALINK

This makes so much sense, it'll never get done.

And folks, you can still filibuster. You just can't do it by sitting on your ass, or by putting an anonymous hold on something or someone.
Or am I reading this wrong?

Posted by: c u n d gulag on January 5, 2011 at 1:56 PM | PERMALINK

Lost, you are mistaken. Fortunately, the Constitution contains a Presentment Clause that requires that the ostensibly Democratic President sign bills into law.

Even if the GOP can convince a few conservadems to vote for cloture on GOP legislation, Obama would presumably veto it.

Filibuster reform is urgently needed. Just because the Democrats, theoretically, could get burned doesn't make it less necessary.

Posted by: square1 on January 5, 2011 at 2:00 PM | PERMALINK

So, what are our employees doing until the 24th?

Posted by: hawiken on January 5, 2011 at 2:11 PM | PERMALINK

Lost in the debate of breaking precedent and making these rule changes with just 51 votes is this: all this is doing is hastening the demise of these procedural roadblocks. Guaranteed the next time there is a R president with an R Senate, the D's will either have to roll over on everything or the R's will exercise the "constitutional option" then and change the rules.

The filibuster is like a lot of things: Maybe good in small measures, but when it's abused like it has been in the last decade, it's going to get outlawed.

Posted by: Vondo on January 5, 2011 at 2:12 PM | PERMALINK

Under the Udall/Harkin/Merkley plan, the chamber would have two hours of debate after cloture is complete.

The positive effect of this change alone would be huge. This would gut the power of a 'hold,' anonymous or otherwise, and would also pretty much end the ability of the minority party to frustrate the goals of the majority simply by forcing them to use up days and days of Senate floor time on trivialities, bills and nominations that aren't being seriously contested, and the like.

Much of the advance discussion of the proposed changes suggested that this was going to be left out, so I'm quite relieved to see that it's part of the Udall-Merkley package.

Posted by: low-tech cyclist on January 5, 2011 at 2:15 PM | PERMALINK

I suspect the thinking went like this. We have to make an exception to increasing deficit with repealing Obamacare; we would have to make another exception re student loans. that is one too many exceptions during the first week.

Posted by: Johnny Canuck on January 5, 2011 at 2:24 PM | PERMALINK

sorry, meant prior post for student loan thread

Posted by: Johnny Canuck on January 5, 2011 at 2:32 PM | PERMALINK

"...the Republican leadership's hostility for changes appears to be hardening, but we'll know more soon enough."-Benen

But of course. The filibuster and secret holds have enabled this minority to control the majority completely...and it was never about helping the country or its people but just about gaining power by causing defeat to the democratic agenda in every way possible. Just look at how nominees were overwhelmingly voted for after releasing a hold or stopping a filibuster.

Posted by: bjobotts on January 5, 2011 at 5:04 PM | PERMALINK



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