Will the new filibuster rules improve the Senate?

The Week
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid speaks at his weekly news conference on Dec. 4.
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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid speaks at his weekly news conference on Dec. 4.

Plenty of Democrats and outside advocacy groups are shaking their heads after the Senate agreed to only minor changes to how business is conducted

Like the great filibusters of the past — "Huey Long quoting his oyster recipe, Al D'Amato singing Gene Autry, and Bernie Sanders just plain speechifying" — the Senate Democrats' big "filibuster-reform push was fun while it lasted, but it's over now," says David A. Graham at The Atlantic. On Thursday night, the Senate overwhelmingly approved a watered-down set of rule changes and informal agreements worked out by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). The new agreement will cut the delay for confirming presidential nominees, especially federal judges; shrink the number of allowable filibusters, make senators actually take to the Senate floor to threaten one, and provide some workarounds; and allow the minority party to offer amendments to legislation, among other tinkering. It does not, however, end the current de facto 60-vote requirement for any bill to pass. That means it doesn't, in fact, change the filibuster.

What happened? The reformers had the wind at their backs. Everyone agreed that the Senate was grievously broken. Democrats had not only not lost seats in the Senate but had gained them. And Reid had publicly said that reform was needed and that he was willing to use the "nuclear option" — changing the official Senate rules with a bare majority of 51 votes — to get it done if he had to. But the veterans got in the way. This was always the danger. Merkley and Udall are both freshman senators; neither one has ever been in the minority. While they agitated for changes, more senior Democratic senators eyed them warily, remembering when they'd been in the minority and used filibusters — albeit less frequently than the current minority. [The Atlantic]

Newly elected Sen. Angus King (I), who came into the Senate a supporter of reforming the filibuster, quoted the Rolling Stones after the vote: "You can't always get what you want, but if you try some time, you might just find you get what you need." OK, says David Weigel at Slate, "let's go with it: Did the Democrats get what they need?" 

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No — or at least the country didn't, says Jon Walker at Firedoglake. This package of rule changes is "so inconsequential" it amounts to a dereliction of duty by the feckless Democrats. "Every time Senate Republicans delay a vote, filibuster a bill, or stop the confirmation of a nominee it will happen because Democrats chose to abdicate their Constitutionally prescribed power." It's like they're afraid to govern. Ugh. I doubt there's another caucus in the democratic world "so pathetic and cowardly that it would actually needlessly give up almost all of its governing power after winning an election."

It's true that Reid's compromise does absolutely nothing about the "pure 60 vote Senate," says Jonathan Bernstein at The Washington Post, but that's only one of the ways the GOP has gummed up the works — and the less consequential, since any bill has to pass in the Republican House to become law.

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But there's also another kind of obstruction, too. Even when there are 60 votes — sometimes, even when there are 70 or 80 or even more — individual senators and small groups of senators have had many tools to stall and delay. And because Senate floor time is scarce, those delays have raised the cost of bringing even overwhelmingly popular items to the floor.... Reid's reform plan, which does nothing for smaller majorities, really should make a difference for this second type of obstruction.... The problem of obstruction of large majorities is a real one, and I think on the whole this set of reforms should help reduce it. [Washington Post]

In other words, "instead of dictating an end to the filibuster, Reid ended up settling for a compromise that refines it, but essentially leaves it in the hands of the minority," says Ed Morrissey at Hot Air. And my guess is that he and other moderates balked at more fundamental changes due to "the prospect of living under any other rules in the minority after 2014," when the GOP very well may regain majority status. Overall, I'd say "this is a smart play for both Democrats and Republicans in trying to repair the reputation of the upper chamber." But it's not so great for Reid, who "will come out looking like the big loser not so much for what he gave up, but for what he promised and then failed to deliver."

Yes, there will be plenty of grief over this deal on the Left, especially the first-term ringleaders of the filibuster-reform push, Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.), says Doug Mataconis at Outside the Beltway. But this modest revamping of "Senate rules to make it easier to get things done more quickly" is probably the best they could have realistically hoped for. "The Senate has never been an institution accustomed to radical change," and "anyone who walks in there thinking they are going to change everything to suit what they think is ideal hasn't paid any attention at all to the history of the body they are now a member of."

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