It took more than three weeks for the Senate to finish its first official day of business, which Harry Reid finally gaveled to a close on January 25th. With that, the hopes of some Democrats to overhaul the filibuster rules also crashed into the hard reality of politics. Instead of making sweeping reforms to filibusters demanded by Democrats on a majority-only basis, Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell have agreed to a much more modest series of rule changes:
Senate leaders say they have agreed to steps to limit use of some filibusters, allow more amendments and take other steps to reduce partisan tactics that often slow business to a crawl.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Republican leader MitchMcConnell say they have also agreed to promote legislation that would reduce by a third the number of presidential appointments that require Senate confirmations. Carrying out this advice and consent role often takes the Senate months, or even years, to achieve.
The Senate is already poised to reject the radical changes pushed by some Democrats. While the AP didn’t give any specifics on the rule changes themselves, there already existed a bipartisan consensus on reducing the number of positions for Senate confirmation in order to allow incoming administrations to staff themselves in a timely manner. Right now, several hundred appointed positions must pass the Senate, which makes for either a cursory look or long delays, neither of which helps in the long run.
Any changes to the filibuster will probably mean a limitation on its use to prevent the start of debate, which members of both parties have agreed leads to abuses of the system. Republicans may have exchanged that for a rule barring the procedure of “filling the tree,” used by the Senate Majority Leader to block amendments from the minority. Republicans have complained about that ever since Harry Reid took over control of the Senate. Hopefully, the agreement will also include substantial changes in “holds” — especially those made anonymously, a practice that should end entirely.
Otherwise, it looks like the effort to steamroll the GOP on massive “reforms” has been stopped. As Byron York explained, too many members of the 53-seat majority have begun to suspect that they will shortly have to use the filibuster themselves:
Through January 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25 — through all those days the Senate was in recess and therefore still officially in its “first day.” That meant liberal Democrats could continue to maneuver and negotiate ways to end the filibuster and, if they could find 51 senators willing to go along with their scheme, take a vote on the Senate’s “first day.”
Furious negotiations went on behind the scenes. The Democrats’ anti-filibuster wing, led by Sen. Mark Udall, tried to muster support for the effort to kill, or at least substantially weaken, the filibuster. Udall wasn’t, of course, trying to persuade Republicans to go along; all GOP senators opposed the idea. Rather, Udall and his allies were trying — and, it turns out, failing — to convince 51 Democrats to put an end to the filibuster. By Tuesday, it was clear they had failed. After the State of the Union, Reid adjourned the Senate, and the 22-day “first day” was over.
The problem for Democrats turned out to be bigger than the filibuster itself, though. Changing the rules of the Senate usually requires substantial bipartisan support in order to get 67 members to vote in favor of them. By setting a precedent based on a flimsy, ahistorical view of rule changes that allow only a bare majority to make changes on the first “day,” Democrats would tee up the GOP for a complete overhaul of the Senate if/when they take the majority in 2013 — perhaps on committee allocations, rules of order, and so on.
But even outside of the precedent, Democrats may have run into problems with the new filibuster rules as proposed, and perhaps immediately. The catalyst for this dawning realization may have been the Rule 14 scheduling of the ObamaCare repeal vote. Had that bill come to a vote on the floor with the filibuster eliminated or damaged, Republicans only needed four Democrats to flip to pass it — which may have been possible, given the number of red-state Democrats facing re-election next year. The ObamaCare repeal reminded Democrats that they have use for some obstructionism, too.
We’ll need to see what the precise changes are before assessing their effect. However, stopping this interminable-day strategy is clearly a win for the GOP.