Senate Democrats emerged from a caucus meeting Thursday bullish about their chances for changing Senate filibuster rules, but they apparently were no closer to an agreement on how to do it.
Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) seemed most optimistic, saying that he would give the GOP a chance to be a part of the process but that he was not afraid to move forward without it.
“We hope that the Republicans will see the light of day and work with us,” Reid told reporters. “If not, we’ll have to do something on our own.”
But when asked whether he has the 51 votes for a particular proposal, Reid deflected the question. Democrats contend that the rules can be changed by a simple majority vote, rather than the 67 votes traditionally needed.
“I’m not going to get into specifics,” he said. “But we have lots and lots of support to change the rules.”
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said that “it’s hard to know yet” what Democrats can realistically expect to happen on the rules change issue when they return from a two-week recess Jan. 25.
Sen. Tom Harkin reiterated that sentiment, saying there are 51 votes to change the rules but declining to specify which proposal those 51 would actually support. “Some of that is coming together right now,” the Iowa Democrat said.
Both Whitehouse and Harkin said they were hopeful about bipartisan talks between Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), as well as negotiations between Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and GOP Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.).
McConnell criticized Democrats for pursuing filibuster rules changes, but he did not rule out agreeing to some changes.
“We don’t think the Senate rules are broken,” McConnell said, but he added, “We’re willing to discuss it.” He refused to say which rules changes he might consider.
Earlier in the day, Schumer did not exclude the possibility of resolving the rules debate via an unofficial “gentleman’s agreement” between Republicans and Democrats. “There are lots of different ways to skin this cat, and we’re going to look at all of them,” he said.
Schumer and Alexander met Wednesday night to talk about rules changes, and the Democrat said their talks would continue “telephonically” over the two-week recess.
Liberals who have been pushing for the rules changes privately said that a gentleman’s agreement could work just as well as a vote on the floor to change the rules.
Harkin and Sens. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) unveiled a proposal Wednesday to eliminate the ability to filibuster a bill before it has been brought up for debate, while guaranteeing the minority the right to offer amendments. The resolution would also eliminate “secret holds,” limit debate time on nominations once a filibuster has been broken, and force Senators to hold the floor and talk a bill to death if they object to it.
But Senators and aides acknowledge that there are not enough votes within the Democratic caucus to pass that proposal as is. Republicans have responded somewhat favorably to the proposal to eliminate anonymous holds on legislation and nominations, but they have ardently objected changing the rules by a simple majority vote.
Harkin said the Senate has voted three times to validate that only a simple majority is needed if changes are made on the first legislative day. However, he acknowledged that the chamber has never actually followed through with the option because bipartisan agreements have always been reached.
Reid is holding open the Senate’s first legislative day for the entirety of the two-week recess in order to preserve his options. Harkin indicated the first legislative day could last well into the week of Jan. 24.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.