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With Democrats trying to reach agreement on ways to diminish his power come January, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell surprised the proponents of reform by inviting them to his office to discuss how they plan to change Senate rules.
The Kentucky Republican, GOP Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) and Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) on Tuesday morning hosted Democratic Sens. Mark Warner (Va.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.) and Benjamin Cardin (Md.) in an apparent attempt to find out what Democrats are planning and discourage them from following through. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was also invited but had a scheduling conflict, sources said.
One Democratic source who was told about the meeting said McConnell seemed to be on a “fishing expedition” to find out what changes were afoot on the filibuster and other potential rules that many Democrats want to change as soon as the 112th Congress begins Jan. 5.
Corker confirmed a meeting occurred but would only say, “The purpose was to just have a discussion.”
No staff was allowed in the meeting, sources said.
Democrats have been meeting this week to discuss what, if anything, they want to do when the next Congress begins and they are faced with an emboldened 47-member GOP minority and a weakened Democratic majority.
For example, they are talking about whether to eliminate filibusters of bills before they even come to the floor for debate, while preserving the right to filibuster bills that are already on the floor.
One Senate Democratic aide suggested that the meeting with McConnell indicated a willingness of the minority to try to find common ground on the issue.
“I think he senses something’s afoot, and he wants to get in on it,” the aide said.
But Republicans flatly rejected the notion that McConnell or any other Republican would be open to changing Senate rules in a way that prevented them from easily blocking legislation he opposes.
“We are not going to allow changes to happen,” one Senate GOP aide confidently predicted, noting that Democrats appear split on what to do anyway.
It’s not as if Republicans have been open publicly or privately to the changes. Alexander showed a three-and-half-minute video to Conference members last week highlighting Democratic statements made against filibuster reform. The brief video shown at last week’s GOP luncheon includes footage of floor speeches by Reid, Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and even then-Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) made in 2005 when Republicans considered limiting debate on judicial nominees. Alexander also cribbed more recent comments from Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), who devoted the bulk of his retirement speech on the floor last week to speaking out against changing Senate rules.
“To my fellow Senators who have never served in the minority, I urge you to pause in your enthusiasm to change the Senate rules,” Dodd says in a clip in the video.
Invoking the words of notable Democrats, including the late Sen. Robert Byrd (W.Va.), who was a fierce defender of Senate rules, Alexander said he showed the video to remind colleagues of the need to protect minority rights.
“What I’m really trying to do is help members of our caucus and the Democratic caucus understand why, as Sen. Byrd used to say, why we have a Senate,” Alexander said in an interview last week.
Alexander said he has reached out to Members from both parties and reminded Democrats that procedural tactics such as the filibuster could work in their favor if they are thrust into the minority following the 2012 elections.
“It sounds appealing to say, if you’re a Democrat today, we’ve got 58 or 59 votes, we’d like to create a freight train to run through the Senate just like the House does,” Alexander said. “It’s not as appealing when you think about the fact that in two years the freight train might be the Tea Party Express with [Sen.] Jim DeMint [R-S.C.] as the conductor and the Democrats might not like that.”
Of course, Republicans could get a reprieve from rules changes given Democrats have been struggling to come up with a consensus proposal and have only three weeks to do so.
If Democrats want to change the rules without facing the customary 67-vote threshold, they will have to follow a precedent set in the 1970s, when filibuster rules were changed by a simple majority, or 51 votes, on the first day of the new Congress.
But so far, Democrats are not in agreement on whether to use the simple majority option, and Republicans would need to pick off only four Democrats to kill that plan anyway.
“We’re in this tough stage of building a consensus,” said Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), a staunch proponent of filibuster reform. “How do you get 51 Senators to agree as to what the rules are and at the same time reach out to Republicans to see if there is a different way we can use the rules than what we’re doing right now?”
Democrats are expected to revisit the issue during their Thursday caucus meeting. But it’s been a topic that has dominated previous caucus meetings in the weeks since the midterm elections. Udall acknowledged that time is running short to get an agreement.
Moderate Sen. Mark Pryor said he was reluctant to make any rules changes next year, particularly without any Republican support.
“I understand the frustration, but I just think we need a lot of wisdom when it comes to changing Senate rules,” the Arkansas Democrat said. “Our rules have worked well for a long time.”
Besides eliminating the filibuster on motions to proceed to a bill, Democrats also have been kicking around the idea of requiring a Senator to be present on the floor to sustain a filibuster or eliminate a secret hold.
They have also been discussing whether to put the onus of a filibuster on the minority. Currently, supporters of a bill must produce 60 votes to kill a filibuster. Some Democrats say they may want to reverse the burden so opponents must produce 41 votes to sustain their position.
But so far, no single proposal has emerged.
“This is an important week to the rules process,” another Senate Democratic aide said. “It’s important to getting a final determination on the direction.”