The first two bipartisan gentlemen’s agreements commit the minority “to reduce the use of the filibuster on motions to proceed” to consider legislation and the majority in turn “to reduce the use of ‘filling the [amendment] tree’ to block all amendments.” (Note the term “reduce:” Yes, Virginia, there is a partisan clause.)
The third agreement commits the Senate to enacting legislation to reduce by a third the 1,400 executive branch nominations now requiring confirmation — a calendar-clogger causing major backlogs. Finally, to seal the whole deal, Reid and McConnell promised not to invoke the constitutional option for changing Senate rules in this or the next Congress (which reformers made clear does not bind them).
All this is reminiscent of the Senate Republican majority’s threat in 2005 to deploy the nuclear option to eliminate filibusters against consideration of President George W. Bush’s judicial nominations. That threat, much maligned at the time, also led to behind-the-scenes negotiations to avert Democrats’ vow to shut down the Senate if their right to filibuster was curtailed (hence the term “nuclear” because it would “blow the place up”). The result was a bipartisan agreement among a gang of 14 Senators who pledged not to support filibusters of judicial nominations (except in extraordinary circumstances). That agreement held and contributed to preserving Senate peace and comity on other matters as well.
This year’s failed reform efforts produced headlines such as, “Filibuster Reform Goes Bust” and “Filibuster Lives.” The reality, however, is that the reformers’ bold ploy did force the hand of the bipartisan leadership to work out agreements that will enable the Senate to operate in a more functional and conciliatory manner. That bodes well for getting some important things done this year, even on the eve of what will be a contentious election season.
Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.