Reid issues ultimatum on filibuster reform

posted at 9:01 am on January 23, 2013 by Ed Morrissey

If you thought Harry Reid had given up on filibuster reform, think again.  Reid issued an ultimatum yesterday to Mitch McConnell on reaching a compromise for a new set of rules that would make the filibuster more difficult to apply. If McConnell doesn’t meet his deadline, Reid says he’s prepared to go nuclear:

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Tuesday that if he was working with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to strike a deal on the filibuster, but that if an agreement was not reached in the next two days, he would move ahead with the so-called “nuclear option” and change the filibuster rules with just 51 votes. …

“We had another meeting today, and I think that within the next 24-36 hours we can get something that we agree on,” Reid went on. “If not, we’re gonna move forward with what I think needs to be done. The caucus will support me on that.”

Reid would change the rules of the filibuster, forbidding the minority from filibustering on the motion to proceed. In order to filibuster a bill, lawmakers would have to hold the floor “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”-style.

To make that change, Reid would have to invoke the nuclear option, changing the rules of the Senate with a simple majority of 51 votes, rather than the traditionally required supermajority.

Will the caucus support Reid on the nuclear option?  That’s a good question.  Right now Democrats have a 55-45 majority in the Senate (with the inclusion of two independents caucusing with Reid), and fairly good control of the chamber.  However, at least a half-dozen Senate Democrats will either retire or face red-state voters in 2014, and the remaining members of the caucus may recall that the President’ party traditionally does very poorly in second-term midterm elections.  Whatever they try to jam through in a nuclear option in 2013 may end up leaving them subject to the same rules as the minority in 2015 — and Reid will have set a precedent for rule-changes that would allow Republicans in the majority to make those rules even worse.

Plus, Reid isn’t the only one with nuclear options in his pocket.  The Senate runs to a large degree on manners.  The chamber routinely dispenses with lengthy bill readings on the basis of unanimous consent, mainly because most Senators wouldn’t pay attention to the readings in the first place.  That allows for a huge increase in efficiency, especially when one considers the length of the bills, and the fact that they need to be read (or the reading waived) multiple times as part of the process of legislation.  If Republicans withhold unanimous consent on all business, they can bring the Senate to a crawl — even on budgets, which aren’t subject to filibusters.  And that’s just one “nuclear” option that Republicans can use to make Reid’s management of the Senate a nightmare.

Both parties have had enough of parliamentary tactics, and both parties need to give.  It makes sense to reform filibusters to restrict them to blocking floor votes and to force the filibustering Senators to have public skin in the game rather than just a backbench silent filibuster as we’ve seen for several decades.  However, Reid has to quit blocking the minority party from offering amendments by using his privilege to “fill the tree,” too.  Like so many issues in Washington, there is some obvious middle ground here, and perhaps the “ultimatum” will just serve to focus the effort on that middle ground in order to get filibuster reform out of the way.

Update: Here’s some more information from The Hill which makes it seem as though Reid just wants to get this fight off the table:

Filibuster reform has become a headache for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

Reid is stuck in the middle, between liberal senators pushing hard for drastic reform and senior Democrats balking at changing the culture of the upper chamber. …

A coalition of liberal groups met at the headquarters of the National Education Association (NEA) shortly after Obama won reelection to set strategy for advancing his second-term agenda. One of the primary goals emerging from the meeting was enacting filibuster reform.

Senate Democrats debated how to proceed during a lunch meeting that stretched for more than an hour Tuesday — and left the room with little resolved.

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