At the beginning of next Congress, Reid will be able to bypass the two-thirds majority ordinarily required for Senate rule changes and approve them with 51 votes. He hopes to deny the minority at least two existing powers: one to block legislative debate from beginning, and another to filibuster silently without a critical mass of senators in the chamber voicing their opposition. Other rules changes are also under discussion.
And with a 55-45 Democratic majority in January, he's confident he'll succeed.
McConnell has aggressively denounced Reid's efforts, lamenting that he's weakening a longstanding tradition of robust minority power in the Senate and warning that Democrats will suffer the consequences when they inevitably return to the minority. But for the first time on Tuesday he sounded a note of confidence, and expressed optimism that Reid will lack the votes to move forward with the complex rules change procedure he's eyeing.
"There's growing Democratic unease with breaking the rules to change the rules. I think it would be very difficult for that to come about," he told reporters at his weekly Capitol availability. "That was appropriately labeled by the other side a few years ago when we were thinking of doing something similar, the 'nuclear option.' I think it would be bad for the institution, bad for the country."
Several senior Senate Democrats have indeed expressed reluctance to implement significant changes to the rules on a simple majority basis. But Reid's pronouncements have left him very little wiggle room. And his vehemence suggests he'll undertake a concerted effort to round up 50 votes for filibuster reform next month if Republicans don't agree to change the rules in ways that make minority obstruction more transparent.
McConnell contends that his use of the filibuster is justified by a systematic majority effort to limit room for debate and amendments on legislation. Democratic leaders retort that Republicans have embarked upon a bad-faith effort to prevent the majority from governing at all by abusing the filibuster serially, and in unprecedented ways.