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Stevenson: In Senate, ‘Motion To Proceed’ Should Be Non-Debatable

There’s a simple step the Senate could take that would prevent a lot of the current delay and obstruction, while still permitting lawmakers to debate some controversial matters at length.

The “motion to proceed” should be made non-debatable and subject to an immediate majority-rule vote.

This may seem like an arcane parliamentary matter, but in practice the chance to kill a bill or nomination before it is open to debate and amendment is a key weapon in the hands of obstructionists. They don’t even have to oppose the measure; they just argue that “now is not the time” to take it up. In fact, in the past 20 years, more than one-fourth of the cloture petitions to end debate have been on motions to proceed.

Maybe the Senate, under pressure from voters and stymied by the recent surge in filibusters, will change or repeal the current rule that requires a 60-vote supermajority to cut off debate. But that isn’t likely, since it takes 67 votes to change the rules and since all Senators can envision circumstances when they might want to fight even though outnumbered.

Even if lawmakers eliminated the 60-vote rule, obstructionists would retain numerous tools to block or delay action.

A compromise might be found on the motion to proceed, which would have substantial additional benefits while still preserving the right of extended debate on substantive matters.

Right now, the motion to take up legislation is non-debatable only in very special circumstances: if the Senate has adjourned rather than recessing at the end of the previous day, if it has a period of morning business the next day and if it is in the second hour of the session. Even then, the bill goes back to the calendar if debate continues at the end of morning business.

The biggest problem in the Senate’s current rules isn’t that the majority can’t work its will, but that a handful of Senators can clog the legislative stream, preventing action even on broadly supported measures.

Cutting off debate requires a day’s wait after the first cloture petition is filed, and then 30 more hours of debate even if cloture is invoked. This means that the leadership needs at least four days just to end debate on the motion to proceed, plus many more on controversial amendments.

Four days on one measure is four days that can’t be devoted to other matters — and the Senate has averaged only 167 days in session each year this decade.

Making the motion to proceed non-debatable would not only reduce the opportunities for filibusters but would also end the practice of individual “holds” on bills and nominations.

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