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Changes to Filibuster May Give Senate Leaders Political Heartburn

Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Reid could use new filibuster rules to move more legislation, but political pressures may make him less likely to employ the new tactics.

If the Senate filibuster changes envisioned by liberals would accelerate chamber business like a sports car, the compromise reached Thursday is closer to a bicycle.

To be sure, the deal reached between the chamber’s leaders gives Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid a bit more power in setting the agenda, but it falls far short of what other Democrats and liberal groups wanted. Still, the Senate easily passed two resolutions Thursday night to enshrine those changes in the rules.

In theory, the Nevada Democrat could use the new rules to bring up almost any piece of legislation, as long as he allowed Republicans to offer at least two amendments of their choosing. But in practice, political pressures may make him think twice before employing that tactic.

One senior GOP aide expressed doubt that Reid would regularly use the new power to sidestep filibusters on motions to proceed. After all, he would be giving the GOP the power to have a roll call vote on any topic, and Republicans have not been shy about pushing amendments they know put vulnerable Democratic incumbents in a difficult spot.

Of course, the new maneuver could also set up a quandary for Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. He would control the right to offer the Republican amendments, and the 45 members of his conference would undoubtedly be interested in getting their chance to address their issues.

For instance, McConnell’s colleague from Kentucky, fellow Republican Rand Paul, frequently seeks to offer floor amendments that face overwhelming defeat and are not popular even among the majority of Senate Republicans. If McConnell, rather than Reid, is perceived as blocking Paul’s amendments, it could cause trouble for him back home as he seeks a sixth term in 2014.

Steven S. Smith, a Senate procedural scholar at Washington University in St. Louis, called the overall package “a very modest change.” He noted that the agreement eliminated a draft provision from Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and John McCain, R-Ariz., that would have given committee chairmen and ranking members more power to pick floor amendments under the process.

“This may be a bow to unhappy Steering Committee types who may not have liked the previous draft that gave formal leadership control of the amendments,” Smith said. “There will be some confusion about how those amendment opportunities will be allocated within each party.”

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