On January 3, 2013, the U.S. Senate of the 113th Congress convenes for the first time. One of the first items of business will be adoption or amendment of its rules.
Prior posts have examined the so-called “speaking filibuster” reform proposal led by Senator Jeff Merkley of Washington State. Although I think it does not go far enough to prevent the minority Republican Senators from stopping action on the nation’s urgent business, the only way it can be adopted on January 3rd is by a simple majority vote of at least 51 Senators under the so-called “constitutional option” or “nuclear option.”
This prospect last Friday prompted an even weaker reform measure from four Republican Senators (John McCain, Lamar Alexander, Jon Kyl and John Barrasso) and four Democratic Senators (Carl Levin, Chuck Schumer, Mark Pryor and Ben Cardin).
This so-called bipartisan plan’s main changes would allow the majority leader to prevent filibusters when the Senate starts debating legislation; reduce the number of filibusters when the Senate is ready to start trying to write compromise legislation with the House; ensure that each party would be allowed two amendments to each bill; and reduce the number of federal judgeships subject to filibusters, although not for top judges. This group’s proposal is not a rules change, but rather a “standing order” that would expire next term. In addition, although the proposal does not require a speaking filibuster, a document explaining the proposal said the leaders of the two parties would require it.
In order for this weaker “bipartisan” proposal to block the one from Senator Merkley, the former’s supporters have to obtain the backing of only one more Democratic Senator (in addition to the four that are its original sponsors) that would deprive Senator Merkley’s proposal of the 51 votes its needs to pass under the “constitutional option.”
One of their most promising targets for this additional vote for the weaker proposal has been Senator Dianne Feinstein, who has been reluctant to change the rules on a party-line vote because of concerns about what will happen if and when Democrats are once again in the minority. On yesterday’s “Fox News Sunday,” however, Feinstein said she is hopeful the bipartisan plan will work out, but she would not rule out the Democrats’ going it alone.
According to the Huffington Post, there are two other Democratic Senators that are possible endorsers of the more limited reform. They are Senators Baucus of Montana and Donnelly of Indiana.
Even if the “bipartisan” proposal could deprive a simple majority for the Merkley proposal, it appears doubtful that the “bipartisan” version could obtain the 67 votes it would need for adoption under the current rules requiring a two-thirds (or 67) votes to amend the rules. However, if the Merkley proposal is defeated, its backers could reluctantly support the “bipartisan” version as “something is better than nothing.”
Keep in mind that a broad coalition of nearly 50 progressive and labor organizations that have been actively lobbying for filibuster reform have rejected the bipartisan proposal, calling it a “recipe for continued Senate gridlock.”
Watch carefully the news from the Senate on January 3rd to learn what happens.
 This account is based upon the following: Assoc. Press, Bipartisan Senators Propose Curbing Filibusters, N.Y. Times (Dec. 28, 2012); Weissman, Lawmakers Suggest New Rules To Speed Up Senate Business, N.Y. Times (Dec. 28, 2012); Breaking the Filibuster, Huffington Post (Dec. 28, 2012); Johnson & Grim, John McCain, Filibuster Reform Opponents Offering Counterproposal, Huffington Post (Dec. 28, 2012); Kim & Everett, Bipartisan compromise pitched on filibuster, Politico (Dec. 28, 2012); McAuliff & Grim, Weakened Filibuster Reform Plan Revealed in Congress By John McCain, Carl Levin, Huffington Post (Dec. 28, 2012); Grim, Weak Filibuster Reform Offer Rejected By Progressive, Labor Coalition, Huffington Post (Dec. 29, 2012); Grim, Dianne Feinstein: Filibuster Reform Headed In Bipartisan Direction, But Nuclear Option Still On Table, Huffington Post (Dec. 30, 2012).