The Senate continued to slowly organize on Wednesday as a snowstorm bore down on Capitol Hill, and the chamber appeared on pace to end negotiations on rules changes by the end of the week.
An announcement about final committee ratios is planned for Thursday, Democratic aides said Wednesday. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) began calling Republicans on Tuesday evening to inform them of their committee assignments, several GOP aides confirmed, and the process was ongoing as the snow began to fall Wednesday and the chamber cleared out.
Despite the weather, the Senate was scheduled to be in session Thursday, with votes expected on five resolutions that would change the chamber’s rules.
The resolutions would eliminate “secret” holds on nominations, waive the reading of legislative business, reduce the vote threshold for ending a filibuster after further debate, change several Senate rules related to debate time, and require Senators to hold the floor in order to continue a filibuster. The resolutions on secret holds and waiving the reading of legislative business would require 60 votes to pass; the other three resolutions would need the votes of two-thirds of Senators present and voting to pass.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Tuesday afternoon that he expected to have a path forward on a rules package within 24 to 48 hours. Several hours later, Senate leaders agreed to end the chamber’s first day of the 112th Congress, which had been held open by Reid through a procedural maneuver. The decision scuttled a strategy by a group of mostly junior Senators to force a vote on changes.
Several of the junior lawmakers have advocated altering Senate filibuster rules and other procedures that have been used by the minority to slow debate. The reform-minded Members had threatened to use a Senate procedure that would require only 51 votes to pass a rules change if it was conducted on the first day of the legislative session. Changing the rules traditionally requires 67 votes.
The three lawmakers who have led the push to change the rules were undeterred by the setback, and they vowed Wednesday evening, before the resolution votes were announced, to continue to try to reform the filibuster process. Some of their proposals are scheduled for votes Thursday.
“While I’m disappointed this body lacks the necessary will to enact truly substantive reforms, we have certainly succeeded in bringing reform to the forefront and shining a light on the sources of our dysfunction,” Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) said in a joint statement with Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.). “In the long term, this fight is far from over and I’m committed to making sure the Senate is more than just a graveyard for good ideas and we are able to address the challenges we face as a nation.”
Senate Republicans have charged that Democrats are trying to change the filibuster in order to weaken the minority’s rights. Harkin accused Republicans of abusing the filibuster and said the Senate needs to change in order to function.
“Reform is not about one party or one agenda gaining an unfair advantage; it is about the Senate as an institution operating more fairly, effectively and democratically,” he said in the statement. “Unfortunately, because of the extraordinary abuse of the filibuster, the ability of our government to address critical problems is severely jeopardized.”
Merkley echoed their remarks. “Reform will not be easy, but it is essential,” he said. “We must restore the Senate as a deliberative body. We must make the Senate transparent and accountable to the American people.”