A handful of junior Democrats, including Sens. Tom Udall (D-NM) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR), have done an impressive job building momentum for a package of modest, but meaningful, changes to the Senate’s filibuster rules. But their plan could be completely upended and replaced by even more modest reforms, if Democratic and Republican leaders successfully negotiate a bipartisan rules reform compromise.
In a phone interview with me Wednesday, Udall described negotiations between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Lamar Alexander (R-TN) as a “separate track” from his own efforts.
A Senate Democratic aide confirms that those discussions are ongoing, and haven’t yet yielded consensus. But if they do, that consensus would serve as a stand-in for Udall’s approach, not as an endorsement of it, as previous reporting has suggested.“I’m not privy to those conversations,” Udall said.
Here’s how this dynamic evolved. Udall along with several freshman Democrats, and even some senior Dems like Tom Harkin, have been making the case — and building support — for rules reform for many months. Their efforts have been successful enough to get just about every Democrat in the caucus on board with the idea of some kind of rules reform. All but one of them — retiring Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT) — signed a letter to Reid endorsing the idea, citing unprecedented GOP obstruction.
But there isn’t party-wide agreement on what should be reformed, or how extensive the changes should be.
That gave Reid the balance of power in this debate. Armed with the letter, and with the fact that the filibuster can be reformed on a majority-rules basis at the beginning of each Congress, he can get Republicans to negotiate under the credible threat that he and the Dems could go it alone, and change the rules more dramatically.
So how much of their own power are Republicans willing to part with? Not much.
If this New York Times article is any indication, “Republicans would resist any changes involving the initial ‘motion to proceed.'” That is, Republicans want to maintain the right to veto simply debating a piece of legislation.
But that’s one of the three flanks of Udall’s plan. The other two would ban the practice of placing secret holds on legislation and nominations, and resuscitate the “talking filibuster”.
The Reid-McConnell talks are closely held, and there’s no word yet on the exact contours of the negotiations.
“It is unfortunate that Senate Republicans have time and time again abused Senate rules to slow or stop us from working on behalf of the American people,” said Reid spokeswoman Regan LaChapelle. “Senator Reid understands the concerns of Senators and the American people about the ability for a small minority of the minority to prevent the Senate from legislating. This is an issue that Senator Reid will continue to look at, and he will continue to call on Republicans to work with us to strengthen our economy, create jobs and protect middle class families.”
One interesting dynamic here is that the leaders — and therefore more senior senators — of both parties enjoy greater power under the current system, which gives them a mutual interest in not letting the less senior senators driving reform push things too far. Separately Democrats have a near-term political interest in reaching accord with the GOP to avoid the appearance of a partisan power grab.
This is being sorted out so privately that, as the days tick down until January 5, even reform advocates don’t know where things stand. Which means they might end up being very disappointed come January 6.