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Junior Senators Promote Change to Filibuster Rules

Senate Democrats are struggling to build consensus on their filibuster reform goals, with the Caucus’ junior members hosting a talk-a-thon to convince veterans to get on board.

“Today we do not have 51 Senators. I’m not just [talking to] Democrats or Republicans, but we’re building momentum,” said Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), one of several Senators pushing for changes to filibuster rules.

Udall’s comments came after a lengthy caucus meeting Wednesday, during which Members discussed an array of topics, including whether and how to pursue a filibuster overhaul.

Some Senators are unconvinced. “I’m not really supportive of changing the filibuster rules,” Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) said. “We do need to become more efficient, and the ways our rules are set up is if you get a belligerent minority, they can use the rules to bring the place to a halt.”

Nearly half a dozen Democrats have put forth plans to cut away at a Senator’s ability to stall action on legislation or nominations via tactics known as filibustering, and each was explored in a series of Rules and Administration hearings this year. Republicans widely criticized those plans, but Democrats found their first GOP supporter last week when Sen.-elect Dan Coats (Ind.) indicated his interest.

The Hoosier, who served in the chamber in the 1990s and is returning for a second stint, has already been in talks with Udall. “We’re in the middle of a lot of good discussion,” Coats said.

“I’m just trying to get a more transparent process in place that keep minority rights but also allows the majority to move,” he said.

Most Democrats agree filibusters on procedural motions should be eliminated; the sticking point is how to accomplish such a change. A two-thirds vote is required to limit debate on a proposed change in Senate rules, but Udall contends that new rules can be adopted at the start of Congress by a simple majority, a tactic he calls the “Constitutional option.”

More senior Senators caution that using the Constitutional option sets a dangerous precedent for changing Senate procedure. The Senators, including those who have served in the minority, are warning their colleagues not to make any drastic moves they might regret after the next election cycle.

Filibuster rules were last changed in 1975, when Sen. Walter Mondale (D-Minn.) steered a change that lowered the number of votes needed to break a filibuster from 67 to 60. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), a junior Senator at the time, said Mondale also wanted to do away with filibusters on motions to proceed but decided against it.

“I think he would have loved to have had a change at that time on the motion to proceed,” said Leahy, who still supports filibuster reform. “But then you did rely on grown-ups in leadership to keep the caucuses in line. Now, it’s being abused and it’s unfortunate.”

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