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Editorial: Rules Fix

While Not Ideal, Senate Agreement Represents Progress — if It Holds

It could have gone further than it did, but we’re impressed with the “gentlemen’s agreement” between Republicans and Democrats on Senate rules. It gives us hope for more bipartisan achievements to come.

After more than a decade of effort on the issue by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the Senate voted 92-4 to eliminate the practice of placing “secret holds” on bills and nominations. Henceforth, Senators seeking to block action will have to be identified.

The Senate also approved, 81-15, a measure to prevent Senators from demanding a full reading of legislation — a technique for delay and obstruction — if its text has been available for 72 hours.

The essence of the “gentlemen’s agreement” — not embodied in any formal rules change — is that minority Senators will be permitted to offer amendments — the Senate Majority Leader will desist from “filling the amendment tree” in an attempt to block them — and Republicans will not attempt to filibuster the motion to proceed to debate on legislation.

The agreement, reached by Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) after extensive spadework by Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) is designed to extend into the next Congress — when the majority may well shift from Democratic to Republican.

Schumer and Alexander, chairman and ranking member of the Rules and Administration Committee, also are developing a package of reforms to cut by 30 percent the number of executive branch nominations requiring Senate confirmation and streamline the onerous, expensive and often demeaning process of being vetted for appointment and confirmation.

The Senate managed to agree on these reforms without touching the “nuclear option” — a majority attempt to change rules with just 51 votes, rather than 67. Some regard this (not without justice) as consistent with the Constitution, but clearly its imposition would explode any chance for comity in the Senate.

The Senate overwhelmingly voted down, 84-12, the latest attempt by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) to incrementally reduce the votes necessary to break a filibuster from 60 to 51. No one expected that change to happen.

But other meritorious ideas were either defeated or left by the wayside. The Senate defeated a proposal that would have forced Senators to actually hold the floor during filibusters.

While filibusters on the motion to proceed will stop as long as the “gentlemen’s agreement” holds — the Senate rejected making that a rules change — filibusters still will be permitted on amendments and on final passage. One filibuster per bill ought to be enough.

The Senate also did not change the rule that allows 30 hours of debate after a cloture vote — a step that would have made the body more efficient and less subject to delay.

Even though the rules outcome was less than ideal, it was progress and those pushing reform deserve credit. So do the leaders for accepting it — as long as they keep to their nonbinding agreement.

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