Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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January 27, 2011

SENATE REFORM REDUCED TO CRUMBS.... Senators have been quietly deliberating for weeks over how (and whether) to reform the way the chamber does business, and there were at least some hints of progress. Yesterday, those hopes were dashed altogether.

On the table was a modest-but-meaningful package of changes crafted by Democratic Sens. Udall, Harkin, and Merkley, which included, among other things, measures on expediting motions to proceed, ending secret holds, and requiring "talking" filibusters.

As of yesterday afternoon, the reform push was just about dead. Advocates won't end the process completely empty handed, but the final agreement reduces reforms to mere crumbs.

Democratic advocates of an overhaul of Senate rules to curb the filibuster abandoned that effort on Wednesday, clearing the way for a bipartisan agreement to institute less sweeping changes to ease procedural gridlock.

After a lengthy meeting with their colleagues and clear signs that they lacked the votes to try to force through new restrictions on the filibuster, the lawmakers -- Senators Tom Udall of New Mexico, Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Tom Harkin of Iowa -- said they would relent now but press their case over the long term.

That sounds reasonable -- think long-term, take incremental gains -- but it's worth emphasizing that future opportunities are unpredictable. Coming on the heels of Senate Republicans engaging in some of the most outrageous abuses in Senate history, there was arguably no better time than now to make much-needed improvements. Nevertheless, this opening has apparently closed.

One of the key remaining elements to the debate was the "Constitutional option," which reformers hoped to take advantage of. The idea was to force Senate changes through by simple majority-rule, exploiting a process that allows members to write their rules for the session on the first day of the new Congress. It was a complicated move -- involving an objection to the previous rules, a favorable ruling from Vice President Biden, and a series of "point of order" objections -- but having this on the table was supposed to give reformers at least a modicum of leverage.

This week, the "Constitutional option" was scrapped, in part because Democratic leaders weren't prepared to leave the chamber paralyzed indefinitely, and in part because it wasn't entirely clear whether the 51 votes were there even if it were tried.

So, what are we left with? The agreement reached this week all but eliminates secret holds, and reducing the number of executive branch nominees needing Senate confirmation by about 400.

There's also something called "the gentlemen's agreement," which apparently involves an informal deal -- Democratic leaders have said they'll allow Republicans to offer more amendments on more bills, and Republicans have said they'll block fewer bills from coming to the Senate floor. Whether the "agreement" will hold, and for how long, is unclear.

If you're watching the Senate floor today, votes are expected on the more meaningful reform proposal -- including the "talking" filibuster -- but no one, including proponents, expects them to generate the necessary 67 votes. The votes are more about raising the visibility of the issue, and getting members on record.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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"Gentlemen" and "Republican" should never collide in the same sentence. Besides, it's a win win for Repubs. They'll block fewer bills. So what? So they'll only block 120 instead of 139? The dissolution of secret holds is encouraging though.

Posted by: Steve on January 27, 2011 at 8:04 AM | PERMALINK

The economic analogy of choice these past few belt tightening metaphor illustration seasons , has been about the roof a tornado , and the budget . Every ringing synapse eagerly voted its ascent to the repair of the over budget roof .
At least whatever hit the senate wasn't as awful as poetry . Then perhaps the action of frozen platitudes would need to become animate . Oh , the horror ...

Posted by: FRP on January 27, 2011 at 8:09 AM | PERMALINK

Have these buffoons taken a LOOK at the State of the Union lately? -We're broke, out of work, old, and sick.

Nero fiddled, while Rome burned. Deck chairs/Titanic.

Posted by: DAY on January 27, 2011 at 8:10 AM | PERMALINK

"The gentlemen's agreement."
Uhm, isn't that just a tad sexist? Does it mean the women don't have to agree to it?
It also presumes a lot on people the likes of Coburn, Thune, Lee, Sessions, and the rest of the Republican Rat Pack - old and new, male and female.
Kabuki! And not even a good show...

Posted by: c u n d gulag on January 27, 2011 at 8:14 AM | PERMALINK

And Democrats wonder why they can't make progress. Absolutely pathetic.

Posted by: dp on January 27, 2011 at 8:17 AM | PERMALINK

"This week, the "Constitutional option" was scrapped, in part because Democratic leaders weren't prepared to leave the chamber paralyzed indefinitely, and in part because it wasn't entirely clear whether the 51 votes were there even if it were tried."

Yeah, like the Senate is really going to be reviewing meaningful legislation coming from the shit-for-brains republican house.

Why not hold things up on this critical issue? All it does is prevent the Senate from reviewing the insane bills that will be coming from the House. You might even get some real media coverage that brings the issue into public consciousness.

That's the problem with Dems. They "work behind the scenes" with republicans, who stonewall because there's no downside to it when nobody's watching. Then they throw up their hands because they "don't have the votes."

What a bunch of spineless cowards.

Posted by: bdop4 on January 27, 2011 at 8:29 AM | PERMALINK

Expecting Republicans to honor any sort of agreement -- gentlemen's agreement, ruffians' agreement, bald-faced fucking liars' agreement, what-have-you -- is ridiculous. It's a major moral achievement for Republicans when they get through a day without breaking the law.

Posted by: hells littlest angel on January 27, 2011 at 8:38 AM | PERMALINK

Once again the Senate proves that it is incompetent at doing absolutely anything. Worse, the more important the problem the Senate faces, the less likely it will be able to act.

It's time to start a movement to abolish the Senate. Who needs 100 rich people who all consider themselves to be President-in-waiting and who cannot successfully tie their own shoes when they come untied?

Posted by: Rick B on January 27, 2011 at 8:58 AM | PERMALINK

The Republicans, of course, can agree to block fewer bills because the Republican-led House won't send over many Democratic priorities.

Posted by: Gregory on January 27, 2011 at 9:00 AM | PERMALINK

So, what are we left with?

Pretty much what we began with: an intentionally dysfunctional Senate where good ideas designed to help the non-rich go to die.

Why mess with success?

Posted by: terraformer on January 27, 2011 at 9:00 AM | PERMALINK

Sanity and reason will return to the Senate if---and only if---this ridiculous menagerie of Mary Poppins wanna-be's called the GOP gets its head handed to it on a platter the next round of elections. Until then, those crumbs are worth very little, indeed.

Feed the birds; tuppence a bag....

Posted by: S. Waybright on January 27, 2011 at 9:00 AM | PERMALINK

I gritted my teeth over the last 2 years but had hopes the Dems would gain a clue. This is the stupidest sellout I could have imagined. The Rs have been lying for two years, but NOW the Dems think they can be trusted?

The Old White Farts in the Senate need to be kicked out at the earliest opportunity - all of them, as the Dems are just as greedy, selfish and complacent as the Rs.

Posted by: Sarafina on January 27, 2011 at 9:05 AM | PERMALINK

Who are the Democrats siding with Republicans on this? What are the concerns of those Democrats?

Moar details, pleez.

Posted by: karen marie on January 27, 2011 at 9:13 AM | PERMALINK

Do away with the Senate altogether. It is destroying the country. Incrementalism won't work. Elections don't work. New faces won't make any difference.

Massive street protests might...in some other country. Maybe we could hire protesters. Like we hire mercenaries to do our dirty work.

Posted by: rrk1 on January 27, 2011 at 9:18 AM | PERMALINK

Why are we NOT SUPRISED that Harry 'Spineless' Reid and the Dumbocrap Leadership have surrendered again???

Posted by: AngryOldVet on January 27, 2011 at 9:34 AM | PERMALINK

In the "thank goodness for small blessings" category: Good for Udall and company for having votes on the record on this issue.

Senate rules reform was always going to be a multi-year campaign. Having votes on the record (assuming they happen) provides a benchmark from which to move forward.

Again, not a great victory, but a small one.

Posted by: massappeal on January 27, 2011 at 9:59 AM | PERMALINK

- Democrats will allow Republicans to offer more amendments on more bills.
- Republicans will block more bills from coming to the Senate floor.
- Precisely zero members of the media/political elite will notice or care.

Posted by: Basilisc on January 27, 2011 at 10:20 AM | PERMALINK

This reinforces my belief that there is no difference between the "two sides" in the U.S. Congress. The situation mirrors that of the Israelis and the Palestinians who have been saying the requisite B.S. to their respective audiences for 10+ years, while making their secret deals of coercion and capitulation in hotel rooms here and there.

It isn't ineptness on the part of the "Dems". It is cooperation. It is willing, feckless cooperation and it is fantasy to believe that most of these well paid, well fed, well benefited and very sweetly pensioned freeloaders have anybodies interest at heart but their own.

Their unwillingness to do the work they were sent to do is very nicely compensated by both the taxpayers and their corporate keepers. Paid by both, but screwing over only one.

Posted by: burro on January 27, 2011 at 10:31 AM | PERMALINK

I'm absolutely certain that Republican Senators will filibuster fewer bills which come to the Senate. Rather than doing for every bill, as they did last year, they'll do it for *almost* every bill. See? They compromised.


Posted by: Zorro on January 27, 2011 at 11:03 AM | PERMALINK

The constitutional option was scrapped be cause they did not have 51 votes for it. No extra spinelessness necessary.

And how would you expect to get 51 votes when that includes the following voting in lockstep with the DFH senators?
Landrieu, Conrad, Baucus, McCaskill, Webb, Hagan

Nah gonna happen.

Posted by: catclub on January 27, 2011 at 11:19 AM | PERMALINK

Unfit for duty.
Every single one of them.

Posted by: Wayne on January 27, 2011 at 11:32 AM | PERMALINK

I was going to say something, but these people, in both parties, are beyond worthless.

Posted by: TCinLA on January 27, 2011 at 11:33 AM | PERMALINK

These changes never really had a chance as long as they primarily benefit Democrats. This is one situation where we need the Party of No to bring about real change. GOP members in the House are already complaining about not getting an "up or down vote" in the Senate for their plan to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. The next time their is a Republican House, Senate and President, I guarantee that they won't hesitate to change the Senate rules to their benefit.

Posted by: Miki on January 27, 2011 at 11:41 AM | PERMALINK

What Miki said.

Republicans and the media pre-2007 - It's outrageous that the Senate doesn't hold up-or-down votes - haven't the Democrats read the constitution?

Republicans and the media 2007-2012 - We've always required 60 votes to pass anything in the Senate - it's what the founding fathers intended.

Republicans and the media in 2012, after the Republicans win the Senate - This is America, the founding fathers established a democracy, everything deserves an up-or-down vote, and of course we should get rid of the filibuster. The Democrats are sure to abuse it and thwart the will of the people. After all elections have consequences. Besides, the Senate has always given everything an up-or-down majority vote - nothing's changing.

This is my official prediction.

Posted by: Common Knowledge on January 27, 2011 at 12:21 PM | PERMALINK

With this, I'm done with the Democratic Party for a while. It is so unserious it is not even funny anymore. For years we've listened to if only we had more members only to be shown when they did nothing changed. They blamed GOP obstruction, identifying specifically the filibuster. When given an opportunity to reform it, what did they do? NOT A DARN THING. Guess they won't mind if I return the favor and not do anything for them.

Posted by: consumed on January 27, 2011 at 12:36 PM | PERMALINK

oh wow i am so surprised who could have predicted senate democrats would fold good golly what a shock

^^^Do what I do and make a macro that prints this comment. Sadly, it comes in very handy lately.

Posted by: Tom Allen on January 27, 2011 at 12:40 PM | PERMALINK

The new House of Lords. I rest my case.

Posted by: max on January 27, 2011 at 3:43 PM | PERMALINK



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