Dueling Filibuster Proposals Leave Reformers Scrambling

The two leading champions of weakening the Senate filibuster on Friday criticized a bipartisan proposal that was unveiled in the afternoon with scaled-back reforms, and they pushed for their own package to make more sweeping changes to the rules.

Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Tom Udall (D-NM) promptly said the alternate proposal put forth by Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Carl Levin (D-MI) is too weak and does nothing to prevent senators from filibustering quietly and escaping public accountability for their obstruction — the centerpiece of the Merkley-Udall “talking filibuster” plan.The McCain-Levin proposal, unveiled Friday after bipartisan negotiations, would make it easier for the majority leader to bypass motions to proceed and guarantee the minority two amendments on legislation regardless of relevancy, Steven S. Smith, an expert on Congress at Washington University in St. Louis, told TPM. It would also remove obstacles on motions to go to conference and approve minor presidential nominations.

Levin told reporters in the Capitol that the plan “will hopefully overcome the gridlock that has so permeated the U.S. Senate.” He added: “It is a bipartisan proposal.”

The Merkley-Udall proposal, by contrast, essentially eliminates the ability of senators to block debate on legislation and forces senators who want to prevent a vote on a bill to speak ceaselessly on the Senate floor until one side gives in.

Changing the rules of the Senate ordinarily requires 67 votes. But the majority also has the option of approving rules changes with 51 votes at the beginning of a new Congress — what reformers call the “constitutional option” and opponents dub the “nuclear option.”

Udall and Merkley insisted that Democrats have the 51 votes necessary to pass their more robust plan and called on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) to take it up.

The pro-reform Fix The Senate Now Coalition also called on Reid to say “thanks, but no thanks” to the McCain-Levin plan.

“Instead of a serious reform effort, today’s offering is little more than a status quo, business as usual, recipe for continued Senate gridlock,” the organization said in a written statement. “[W]e hope the Senate Democratic caucus rejects today’s salvo outright.”

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